Comparison is the Thief of Joy – it’s True!

Photo: Arthur’s Seat from Regent Road Gardens, Edinburgh, July 2020

It’s been so long since I wrote a post I’m almost having to re-learn how to use WordPress! When I started out I thought I would write once a week – but that was before everything in the world changed.

There has been so much ‘noise’ on social media and blogs that I didn’t feel the time was right to weigh in with my thoughts. Even now, three months in, I’m not entirely sure what to post. I share my reflections with the caveat that I’m very grateful I’ve kept my job.

The headline quote is generally attributed to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. I don’t know who originally said or wrote it, but it is a favourite of mine and I think it is especially relevant just now.

Despite some of the good things that have come out of technology and how it is helping keep us connected and mobilising community efforts, social media has still been chock full of people boasting. I’m never really sure what drives this, but it’s been disappointing.

Then there’s the constant posts about what home workouts people have been doing, how they’ve been ‘crushing their goals’ and all the self-development they’ve been (allegedly) undertaking during ‘lockdown’. I know everyone has their own coping strategies and is doing their best, but apart from being tone deaf to the fundamental struggles other people are having in order to survive and meet even their most basic needs, why has this narcissistic quest for validation persisted?

Why continue to compete about who can be busiest or most productive? (This extends to home schooling of kids and their extra-curricular activities too) – I guess some habits have just become too ingrained.

Compare, compete, repeat – when many people are just struggling to make it through the day. How to balance the need for connection with the downsides? I’ve stopped looking at social media for extended periods, particularly as the constant mention of the epidemic has overwhelmed me and fuelled my anxiety. My radio used to be my constant companion, but I’ve had to turn that off too.

Some furloughed workers, many of whom of course have their own unique set of challenges and worries, nevertheless have been showing a lack of awareness when posting about the things they are doing – home improvements, enjoying the sunshine and the outdoors; getting a tan – while those who continue working are under intense pressure without the prospect of a break anytime soon – never mind all those people who lost their jobs overnight and continue to have zero support to fall back on.

Despite my awareness, I’m not immune to the Comparison Culture. As a child of the 1970s I’ve grown up with capitalism, consumerism and the onslaught of advertising. Encouraging a targeted segment of the population to compare themselves to others (their neighbours, the cover model, or whatever the latest image of success looks like) and finding themselves lacking is the cornerstone of marketing, so much so that it’s become normal.

I can’t imagine anyone developing an eating disorder unless they are bombarded with messages – from family, bullies, society, the media – telling them what they look like isn’t acceptable or good enough. I won’t go into what lockdown has been like for someone recovering from an eating disorder (for me personally, it’s Binge Eating Disorder), apart from to say it’s incredibly challenging, borne out by the influx of calls to helplines.

There’s so much we don’t know right now, but what we do know is nothing is ever going to be the same again. There are some aspects of this that might be very positive, particularly regarding the environment, the unchecked greed of rampant consumerism, the chasing of economic growth at any cost and the light being shone on the shocking inequalities in society. It would be good to think that values and behaviours might change – but will they?

It is difficult not to simply want our old lives back. The familiar aspects of what we have always done – and expected to be able to continue doing – will always feel more comfortable than the great unknown. The difficulty of being able to assess risk has been a particular challenge for me so far, as someone prone to anxiety. It looks like comparing our lives now to our lifestyles in the recent past isn’t going to be helpful, nor is striving for a quick return to ‘business as usual’.

For someone who is quite far along her personal path to Minimalism, there are some benefits from changes I’ve already made, such as paring down my life, paying down debt and ruthlessly prioritising and budgeting, but therein also lies a new challenge. My top priorities have been:

1) my health – mental and physical 2) spend more quality time with friends and family 3) see more of the world 4) go to more music gigs.

Everything in my life is aligned to these goals, so I think the problem here is obvious.

1) As someone who still finds food stressful, I normally rely on online food shopping for a whole host of reasons, but it’s been hard to access this and there has been deep anxiety about going to shops due to my respiratory condition. With a partner who is a key worker, exposing him to more risk was not something we wanted to do, but we had to. Thankfully we now have the Click & Collect option, so this has helped tremendously.

My mental heath has taken a battering during over three months of self-isolation, but I now feel more confident to go outside for local walks, although many places are overcrowded – the downside of living in a city. Managing my anxiety has been especially tough.

Swimming is my go-to exercise as an overweight person and I have struggled a great deal not being able to burn off excess energy safely. I attempted jogging but the stress on my body is too great. I have also tried indoor and outdoor cycling but I just don’t enjoy it – and it’s not great for my posture either as someone who sits at a desk working most days. Swimming is also very good for my mental health and I miss it a great deal.

2) My family and the majority of my friends do not live in Scotland, so I’ve not been able to see them in person for over six months. I had planned a trip in March to catch up with my close family who I hadn’t seen since November or December 2019, but that had to be cancelled as it wasn’t safe for me to travel. This has been incredibly hard.

Despite video calls, nothing compares to seeing them in person and I’ve not been able to support my Mum in a practical way during her period of (age-determined) isolation. One of my friends who does live closer has been seriously ill with the virus and is having a difficult recovery- it’s been so hard not to be able to visit her. My heart goes out to all those people who’ve not been able to be with their loved ones at incredibly difficult times.

3) Having just got ourselves into a position in our lives and finances where we can travel a little bit more, my partner and I can no longer plan to fulfil these dreams. Even thinking about this is of course a privilege not afforded to many people around the world, but having made it a top priority, it’s difficult to let go of it and to find other dreams to take its place. I’m still very much working on this one. Not having this as something to look forward to means a big mind shift. I was very lucky to travel quite a bit when I was younger, but my partner was not.

4) Music is a great shared passion of ours and seeing it live is always the best experience, shared with the passion of other fans around you. Access to the Arts is one of the main reasons I live in a city. We don’t know yet whether the rescheduled gigs from 2019 will go ahead even next year, so not having any to look forward to for such a long time is hard for us and requires a big adjustment. I have real fears for the music industry right now as with the advent of streaming, most musicians can’t make any income without touring or selling merchandise. Artists and venues are reaching a critical point.

My final point is about the economy and shopping habits. I personally have changed my behaviour and spending a great deal in recent years and I don’t intend to return to ‘retail therapy’, even if I could afford to. In the last three months online shopping has boomed and I fear even more for our high streets which have changed beyond recognition already.

How can we support our local businesses more and how can physical shops remain relevant, safe and offer consumers what they need in terms of the ‘in person’ experience? That human connection is something we all need and crave, but what happens next depends to some extent on the actions of government, to support smaller businesses who cannot compete with the online shopping behemoths who benefit from a grossly unfair tax system and avoid paying the substantial contributions they should.

Encouraging us all to ‘shop for Britain’ to somehow save the economy does not sit well with me, when every household faces an uncertain future re: employment and income, which will not fully reveal itself until the autumn, once employment retention schemes start to wind down. Mass redundancies are already taking place and with the prospect of a No Deal Brexit looming, is this the time for people to be spending to satisfy a quick fix? If not now, then we are all at great risk of not being able to keep up repayments in the near future.

I’m not here to preach to anyone or expect everyone to agree with me, but I can offer up a few small suggestions that have helped me. These include finding pleasure in the small daily rituals such as making a proper breakfast; putting on make up, perfume and styling my hair; (that’s become a challenge!), taking a bath; going for a walk and not looking at my phone, but really noticing nature and wildlife – even in the city; creating a new nighttime ritual of turning off all screens earlier and listening to some favourite albums; taking a coat or blanket and sitting on the balcony – no matter what the weather; keeping a gratitude journal. The last thing I probably struggle with the most and yet it is the thing that creates the most happiness.

One thing I’ve had to let go of is some of the expectations and pressure I’ve put on myself to practice my guitar more and do a lot of drawing and painting. I still would like to do these things, but my motivation is often simply not there and I’ve needed to give myself permission to do my best at work; feed myself and my partner well; exercise whenever I can; look after my loved ones and communicate with them; keep a tidy and clean home; read a lot; meditate; write my journal. I have given myself permission to believe that these things are enough.

Comparing the present with the recent past is going to steal all our joy if we let it – my main wish is to be able to mindfully discover joy in new places in my life whilst helping others.

Thanks for reading.

S x

When Food Is The Enemy

When Food Is The Enemy
— Read on

As #mentalhealthawarenessweek draws to a close, I thought I would re-share my blog post on #eatingdisorders, specifically #bingeeating. Much love❤️, #bekind. S x

The Resources Page is Now Live!

Photo: Sunrise, April 2020

Looking for inspiration? I’ve now compiled the Resources page, so check it out via the Menu to find lots of links to some of my favourite things!

Wishing everyone a safe, happy and healthy weekend .

Thanks for reading.

S x

When Food Is The Enemy

Photo: Spring 2020 in my local park

I’ve given a lot of thought to how to write about this subject, not least because at its worst, a personal blog can quickly become a load of self indulgent, self pitying discussion of the author’s problems- and who wants to read that?

There’s also a chance of upsetting some of my loved ones, but thankfully they know I’m in a much better place mentally than I was a couple of years ago. If I am really going to ‘go there’ then I want to keep it relevant, informative and provide some links that others might find useful. So with a deep breath – here goes!

Firstly, what is the definition of addiction? Because this is what I’m about to talk about. *If you are vulnerable to being triggered by content about addiction or eating disorders, please stop reading now*.

“Addiction is a psychological and physical inability to stop consuming a chemical, drug, activity, or substance, even though it is causing psychological and physical harm”

There are lots of people who believe you cannot be addicted to food. While that may or may not be true in a purely chemical sense (although just try to truly give up sugar…!) in a behavioural sense, food addiction or an unhealthy relationship with food is real, dangerous and it destroys lives.

I believe the reason it can be so destructive is that it’s culturally acceptable and there clearly is no way to avoid food if you wish to survive. These days in developed countries it surrounds us 24/7 and it can feel like there’s no escape. You can’t abstain from food or go cold turkey.

I’m not going to go into how I personally developed Binge Eating Disorder (B.E.D.) but two of the most common triggers are 1) dieting 2) being made to feel unacceptable due to your appearance. (I’ve included links to more information at the end).

The addiction develops by using food as an unhealthy coping mechanism for emotions and feelings, plus the vicious cycle created from self-hatred and shame. Eating to distract from or suppress emotions that are difficult to handle, then feeling self-hate and shame again because of the loss of control and hopelessness that accompanies a binge.

It can take over your life in the same way as any addiction. Most B.E.D. sufferers end up very overweight and spend a lifetime (like me) trying every diet under the sun, believing this time will be the last time, but without the psychological causes and behaviours ever being addressed, it never works.

Cue even more feelings of abject failure, often depression and a worsening of the disorder over time. For me personally, it has been a battle raging in my mind (and body) for more than 30 years.

Even at its worst, I always continued to function at work – more or less – because I had to, but the hidden battle within just got worse the more responsibility and pressure I took on. Anxiety and stress are definitely issues for me.

There is very little help available from our overstretched mental health services and I won’t labour this point, but unfortunately the system is not set up to help anyone who is killing themselves slowly.

Despite all the risk factors that go with becoming morbidly obese, and staying in that zone for around 20 years, I consistently failed to meet the criteria for help on the NHS and this is sadly not uncommon. Unless you can afford private therapy, you’re on your own.

Compare this with all the help available for anyone who has an issue with smoking, alcohol or drugs. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve turned down a prescription for anti-depressants. Somehow I instinctively knew it wasn’t going to help with the underlying causes of my problem. I’m not saying it was the right choice, but it has been my choice.

This is the paragraph where I risk really upsetting my loved ones, but in order to bring home the seriousness of this mental illness, I think I have to and I’m sorry. This addiction led to me planning to take my own life on several occasions.

I couldn’t see any way to become free of it and I no longer wanted to live with the desolation of what an utter failure I was for not being able to stop it. Despairing because I was never going to look the way I wanted to or be fit and healthy enough to fully enjoy my life.

Addiction and self hatred poisons everything good and leads you to make poor decisions for yourself in favour of short-term distraction and temporary relief. Believing you’re not good enough the way you are also makes you believe you’re not good enough for others, leading you to second-guess and sometimes sabotage your relationships.

Bizarrely and cruelly, reinforcing the negative view you have of yourself feels more familiar and comfortable than hoping for something different. Even when you really need a hug, you believe the other person will find it disgusting to touch your body and you shy away from affection, building those walls ever higher.

I was fortunate enough to finally be referred to some specialist help in 2017, due to a small trial taking place offering Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) to patients with a high Body Mass Index (BMI). I had already sporadically been paying privately for several different types of therapy over a two year period – some helped and some didn’t – but I think it laid the groundwork for this lucky break of a referral to an Eating Disorder specialist.

Therapy is probably one of the hardest things I have ever done, and I am thankful I had a supportive employer who let me take time out each week to attend. Having that discussion and admitting to the extent of my problems was not easy, but by this point it was a matter of survival. I was also incredibly lucky to be in a relationship with a wonderful person, meaning I had some vital moral support.

I had a skilled and experienced therapist who I worked with for a year and what an eye opening experience it was. There is so much I can say about it, but I want to highlight one of the most important learning points. The key to addressing my problems was to focus inwards, not outwards. When your ‘inwards’ is a pretty messed up and scary place to visit, it’s the last thing you want to do and that’s why battling an addiction is so hard and painful.

Having spent most of my life looking outwards and relying on external measures of my success and worthiness, I was suddenly forced to confront myself, as this was the only way towards healing. I found it incredibly difficult – and still do.

When I look around now with fresh eyes to what our society has become, I fear for the psychological damage that’s being done by the culture of busy, ‘always on’, social media, an unhealthy and narcissistic focus on appearance and the seemingly constant need to seek approval from others.

Don’t even get me started on the toxic diet culture and abnormal eating habits promoted by an industry that’s making a lot of people very rich by not only preying on people’s insecurities, but creating them. We need to start asking ourselves- if we’re constantly on and off some special eating and/or exercise plan – is this approach working? No.

Wise words

I was lucky to grow up in a simpler era, with time for unstructured play, creativity, imagination and the freedom to just ‘be’, but I still developed an unhealthy coping mechanism to deal with life. What chance do we have now when no-one seems capable of being alone with their thoughts?

The last person in the world who wanted to try meditation was me. I thought it was a load of rubbish and that I could never possibly benefit from it. However, with gentle coaxing and the positive use of technology in the form of the Headspace app, I learned to do it. To this day I credit meditation as being a game changer for my road to recovery, and it still is.

Nothing else has ever come close to helping me cope with anxiety. It requires patience, commitment and consistent practise (none of which I’m great at) but the rewards are worth it. I now use Calm and the price of the annual subscription is less than one of my habitual binges used to be.

My previous blog post was about Minimalism and this is where those concepts plus my recovery come together. Meditation and mindfulness are both about removing distractions and living in the present moment, which is key to tackling anxiety.

By removing everything that distracts you from the things that matter most in your life, it is far easier to see and focus on the best stuff (and appreciate what you already have). This Minimalist concept that I call ‘extreme prioritisation’ now guides most of my decisions. I’m far from perfect but it has had such a positive impact.

No longer seeking the approval of others, ‘proving’ your self worth with money, perceived status or the stuff you own (or wear) is incredibly liberating, but again, it takes commitment to develop these new habits. Finding true meaning in your life and developing new coping strategies to replace the role the addiction has been playing is fundamental to letting it go. Nature abhors a vacuum, as they say.

I’ve had to completely re-evaluate my priorities. It has been necessary to reduce my stress and anxiety by working less and finding more time for my loved ones and the activities that bring me the most health and happiness. Most importantly, I have more time and energy now to cook, something I used to hate with a passion.

I’d like to end with a message of hope but also a couple of pleas. My message of hope is that recovery is possible with the right help – but this is a mental illness related to emotions and feelings and it is not an issue of understanding what healthy eating is or the number of calories in a doughnut.

My first plea is to not judge that overweight person in front of you who is unhappy with their size for having a lack of willpower or being stupid or lazy. If you have a healthy sense of self esteem and you haven’t developed any unwelcome coping mechanisms, then you are very fortunate. You don’t understand what that person is going through.

My second plea is for everyone to check out some of the resources I’m posting below, to educate yourself and maybe your friends and family. At the very least this will lead to more compassion for those with a mental illness and it could help someone by spotting the signs of a problem before it gets out of hand.

The current situation we find ourselves in magnifies anxiety and a lot of people with eating disorders are really struggling because the coping strategies they have developed are more difficult to implement, while the non-food pleasures in their life may have been taken away. The charity BEAT is experiencing a 30% increase in calls to its helpline, if you would like to give them a small donation, it could help someone like me .

Food is not my enemy, it nourishes me and keeps me alive – but I can no longer let it be a crutch or a source of entertainment. I now also understand that I’m so much more than an illness, my weight or size.

I refuse to be defined by those things, although recovery is a rocky, winding road. Raising awareness is just one positive thing I can put out into the world – thank you for reading. S x