Enjoy the ice-cream, before it melts.

From what I’ve experienced so far, grief is a paradox. One minute you can feel intensely happy; the next you can feel intensely sad. One day you may feel nothing but grateful for the things and people around you; others you may feel like the universe has it in for you and your happiness. Sometimes you may look through pictures and videos and letters experiencing joy; others times you might feel a gut-wrenching longing for that person you’ve lost to still be here. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it.

For every ‘negative’ feeling, thought or action, there is a profoundly ‘positive’ feeling, thought or action that can run alongside it. As someone whose grief is still very raw, this can be highly disorientating for me, and honestly quite lonely at times. But I’m beginning to appreciate a shift; a new way of looking at things. It’s a long and winding road (big up Paul McCartney), but one I’m committed to fully.

Letting People In

Everybody’s experience with grief is so unique, which I find makes it even harder to talk about, especially to people ‘on the outside’. I can attempt to explain what it feels like for my mind to transition from one end of the spectrum, to the other – negative to positive, positive to negative. Sometimes it switches as quickly as it takes to boil the kettle, other times over the space of a few days.

However, my vocabulary around the subject is yet to expand and, in the midst of it all, I’m lost for words a lot of the time. My intention is not only to try and understand my own grieving process, but help open up the subject of talking about loss in general; as it’s become increasingly evident to me just how taboo the topic is in day-to-day interactions with friends, family and co-workers. Through no fault of their own, I think people’s natural instinct is to shy away from talking about something that is so permentantly tragic to the ones who are left behind. What can you really say to someone who feels like their whole life has fallen apart? I’ll touch on that later, as it’s definitely a two-way endeavour.

Softening the Wall

Since my dad died, two months ago now, my relationship with grief has been up and down to say the least. The first month or so, I ignored I had even the tiniest ounce of sorrow within me. “Dad wouldn’t want me to be sitting around feeling sorry for myself” I thought. I reacted by throwing myself straight into work, pretending I was fine and focusing on every single silver lining I could possibly think of. This was okay, for the time being. However, I soon realised how unsustainable this way of coping was, as it was only a matter of time before the intense anguish of loosing one of the most iconic figures in my life kicked in.

More recently, I’ve began to soften into my grief as oppose to running away from it. It’s now that I realise why I was so scared of facing up to it in the first place. There are certain triggers which almost creates a wall between me and other people who aren’t going through a similar experience (thank god).

In terms of why I pushed away the grief initially, it makes sense to me now – for as humans we yearn to connect with others. To me, this metaphorical wall feels like a lack of understanding, empathy or sensitivity towards the fact I’ve lost one of the most important people in my life. As I fake a smile and try to empathise with other people’s ‘problems’, I can’t help but feel frustrated by seemingly shallow grumbles and whines.

I’ve found this sense of disconnection could be heightened further by the current climate of COVID-19, which has sparked a number of inconvenient repercussions for many people. Whether it’s being subject to a a lockdown birthday, not being able to go to the gym, or a wedding being postponed; people’s reactions seem so dramatic, and priorities so trivial, in the grand scheme of things. I find myself struggling to relate, let alone empathise with other people’s concerns which, if you think about it, are temporary and pretty minor. If anything, the lockdown will make us all appreciate these things even more once it’s over – so what actually is there to complain about? In the darkest of times it feels like I’m becoming more and more distant from those around me; like I want to isolate myself in my bubble of grief with just the people who truly understand. This is one, very real, side of the paradox.

A Shift in Perspective

Through trial and error, the only way this I’ve found this wall can be knocked down, or at least climbed over, is by rationalising a paradoxical perspective to myself. At the end of the end, you can’t control what other people say, how they act or what they complain about – nor should you try to. I guess it’s a sink or swim kind of thing. You can choose to fall deeper and deeper into the depths of despair (which is perfectly acceptable for a given time); or you decide to doggy-paddle, or at least keep your head above water as best you can. Interestingly enough I’ve found that, if you dig deep enough, dog-paddling comes quite naturally alongside the crippling heartache of loss. It may take a minute, a day, or a week; but the resilience it takes not only to carry on swimming, but actual see the brighter side of things, does in fact appear. In stark contrast to those sticky feelings of resentment, bitterness and isolation, comes equally as cosmic waves of interrelatedness, softness and belonging – to a wider whole. This is much nicer than being stuck in a solitary bubble of sadness.

In hindsight, this shift in perspective makes the darkness makes almost worth it (on the best of days). With every day that’s filled with ‘meaningless’ tasks and lack of motivation, comes another day filled purpose-driven incentives and heartfelt conversations. In the right frame of mind, you can begin to relate to others on a deeper level, and appreciate the commonality of every one of our lives on this planet – we all live, we all die; we all loose people we love, and we all miss people we loose. Through it all, we still connect with one another. We still talk and dance and love. We still strive to learn from our experiences, and use what we’ve learnt to help others. We move on with our lives with a new-found strength. Even though we all go through these tragic events at different parts of our lives, and each have unique experiences with loss, grief and heartache; the fact is that we ALL go through it. There is a morbid comfort in that.

Navigating the paradox of grief, in hope of befriending it’s technicoloured spectrum of waves, is a superpower that I’m only just beginning to hone in on. It’s a virtue that I’m sure will not only benefit those suffering the loose of a loved one, but those ‘on the outside’ too. There will be times where the energy, willpower and strength it takes to feel at peace with the paradox is too much. It’s in these days, months or years that you need to be patient, and those around you need to patient too.

You can’t force a shift, especially when the grief is so raw. It’s in these times that you need to be selfish and do whatever it takes to get yourself back on some kind of track. For me, this meant taking a step back from work, my relationship, my phone, and my hometown – just for a little bit. There was too much going on, and too many people who didn’t seem to understand. My body, and my mind, needed a break.

Focus on YOU

Whether it’s some time away from home, a change in lifestyle or a complete uprooting from the life you lived before your loss; grief has a funny way of making you see more clearly. Like a interactive whiteboard that needs to be calibrated, once you start to join the dots, you’ll function a lot smoother – until the next time you find yourself in a jittery mess. Over and over you’ll adjust as you respond to whatever life throws at you. The jitters are there to help you reset, and re-focus attention to the areas of your life that need some work – health, relationships, work etc. Grief almost makes you even more sensitive, and aware, of the areas of your life which don’t feel quite right. In some sense, this is a blessing in disguise.

Some days it’ll be hard to even keep your head above water, let alone make your life better. Other days you’ll find strength to embrace the good, and the bad. Through it all you’ll gain the wisdom, insight and perspective to live a life of colourful uncertainty. We never know where and when a rainbow might appear; but we always know, where there’s light and darkness, there’s one just around the corner.

The grief will never leave you, but the energy will be transformed. The dark days will become lighter. The emptiness inside you will be full again.

Here’s to the paradox of grief. Absolutely bittersweet. My dad inspired me to enjoy the ice-cream before it melts (and together we enjoyed A LOT of ice-cream). Right now, he’d tell me to embrace the joy when I feel it; and when I don’t, believe that something good is just around the corner.

(Just a side-note) – Communicating with someone who is grieving

In term’s of being on the receiving end of someone opening up about their grief – the balance is hard to strike, and it can change day to day. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure how I would communicate with someone in my situation, so I do truly feel for anyone trying to figure out the best way to help. It’s a challenge to say the least.

My gut feeling is to read the room and, if you sense they’re feeling low and want to talk, try to initiate a deep conversation without being too pushy. If they tell you how they’re feeling, just listen. Don’t try and tell the person how they should or shouldn’t be feeling, avoid relating their situation to a situation you’ve experienced, and maintain eye contact as much as you can. If they seem like they just need a hug, just give them a bloody hug.

If it’s your first time seeing the person since the loss, skip the small talk. If they seem pretty upbeat and up for conversation, cut straight to the chase and talk about the person they’ve lost. Ask them as many questions as you can about what that person liked, didn’t like, felt about certain things, or ways they inspired others. That person may never be coming back, but reminiscing keeps their memory alive. Over time you will piece together what they meant to the person grieving, and it’s only then that you’ll start to appreciate the context of their loss. I can only speak for myself, but I absolutely LOVE talking about my dad. I could talk about him all day long. In fact, it’s probably the thing that helps me the most. I want people to ask me questions about him, because I don’t want him to be forgotten. That’s not to say I don’t want to talk about anything else; but it is important to me to feel like he’s part of an interaction, in some capacity.

The worst thing that can possibly be done is to ignore the loss all together and pretend it hasn’t happened. It may feel awkward, uncomfortable or like you’re treading on eggshells; but if you want to be a support to someone you care about, it is ultimately your duty to create a space that allows them to open up if they want to. If you feel unable to do that, be honest. You might not be the support that person needs right now, and that’s okay. Tuning into how you feel in certain situations is important self-knowledge – and it’s better to be aware than come across as unsupportive or ignorant. You’ve got this.

We’re not Superhuman.

From what I’ve observed, in my (eventful) twenty-two years of life so far, is that a large proportion of us think we’re indestructible. We like to be thought of as ‘strong’, and able to put up with anything. We bend but don’t break. We’re encouraged to be resilient in the face of adversity, whilst having the ability to turn anything into a positive. In every situation we should find a silver lining, and every opportunity should act as a stepping stone to our strong-headed dreams and ambitions. This is all very well, until the cracks start to show. Surely there’s a balance we need to strike.

From my experience, with all of these idealistic ‘qualities’, comes a weakness – a lack of self-compassion. A self-sacrificing sense of duty to those around us, but not to ourselves. As we give more than we take, we set ourselves apart from those for whom we offer our unconditional support and love. We make excuses as to why others are more deserving of attention than we are. Whether it’s our family member who is going through a stressful time at work, or our best friend who’s on the receiving end of a tough break-up; we’re there for them, no matter what. We don’t judge, or doubt, or question. We don’t limit our time or energy in accordance with what we need to tick off our to-do lists; because their health, well-being and happiness is our main priority. That’s what makes us a supportive sibling, a caring friend or a loving daughter. The unconditional nature of our love for others is limitless.

So, the question is, why can so many of us not apply the same level of love to ourselves? As a society, have we really been conditioned us to believe that we need to earn and validate our right to self-compassion; or is it simply ingrained into our nature as human beings? Maybe it’s a bit of both. It’s a concept I’m willing to ponder, as I’m curious as to how my own personal experiences could have led me to where I am today; and how my journey could relate to others.

Bittersweet Independence

Throughout my teenage years, I ‘learnt’ to be independent. As my twin sister spent the best part of seven years in psychiatric units around the country, from the age of thirteen I quickly mastered the art of self-sufficiency. With my parents preoccupied with appointments and visits, they had to trust that their three other ‘healthy’ children would adapt to them not being around as much as they would’ve liked. Luckily, we did. Having spent years feeling ‘neglected’ and hurt by my parent’s lack of presence, this experience taught me how to stand on my own two feet. It meant that at the age of eighteen I traveled across the pond to work at a summer camp in Upstate New York, I went off to university for three years, then backpacked across India for five months device-less and ready for adventure.

In hindsight, from early on, this independence seeped into the way I began to navigate through other areas of my life. For example, at school I wasn’t reliant teachers support, as I bulldozed past paper after past paper in my own time; with the mark schemes implanted into my head like the lyrics of Wonderwall. I knew what I was capable of, and I didn’t need to be reassured. Practically, this is a very useful skill to develop; as your own intrinsic motivation is much more reliable and consistent than the reliance on teachers, parents or friends.

However, when it comes to the emotional side of things, life can start to get rather complicated. When you’ve conditioned yourself to believe that you don’t need the support of others, it impacts on your friendships, relationships and mental health in general; as giving more than you can take, you’re ultimately compromising your ability to look after your fundamental, basic needs. By putting other’s oxygen masks on before your own, you’re risking your own quality of breath.

The Family Committee

A week before my Dad died, he held what he called a ‘family committee’ in the comfort of his hospice bed. To put this in context, for the few days prior, we’d been getting used to the unpredictable effects Dad’s medication had on his speech and language. It’s safe to say that morphine, enriched by his sense of humour, had a comical effect on what came out of my dad’s mouth.

After fifteen minutes or so of talking gibberish in a northern accent, Dad made it clear that his intention behind this particular meeting was to appoint a ‘Captain’. He went on to announce that “the Captain of the committee is going to be Lara, and she is henceforth going to lead the proceedings”. He proceeded to say that “whatever Lara says, goes” and that “once this power is bestowed on Lara, she shall be very very powerful”. Crikey.

Naturally, we all asked the reason behind his decision – as we’re all fully aware of my incapacity to be assertive or bossy in any sense of the word. He explained to me that “you need the power in order to proceed”; and that is was precisely because I didn’twant the power that I’d get the power. Despite the drug-dose, he clearly hadn’t lost his ability to communicate in riddles.

I don’t think he said this to superficially inflate my ego, but in a deeper sense to boost my self-esteem. He knew that, at first, I would be taken aback by his decision (as you can see from the images below!). Then, over time, I’d go on to use it as a tool to break down the internal walls I’ve built up to protect myself. Dad was always in tune with my struggle with power, as it conflicted with my need to please.

He knew I was the only one holding myself back from reaching my full potential; and I believe this was a further push for me to be the leader that he always thought I’d be. He’d always reminded me that not all leaders are loud, insistent and authoritative. Some are calm, quiet, yet confident in what they believe in. There’s a passage in one of my favourite books, called ‘Journey To The Heart’ which says “the more honest we are with ourselves about how we feel and what we think, the more power we will have”. To be honest with others, you first have to be honest with yourself.

 On his death bed, my Dad reminded me that I’ve always had the power within me, as do we all. “You’ll lead by example”, he often said to me, when we talked about my future career path. He made me realise that I don’t need to compromise what I believe in to please others. All I have to do, in order to tap into my own source of power, is not be afraid to be myself.

Sometimes we need someone to point out these seemingly simple concepts to us as, under certain conditions, our view can become distorted and sense of self can be damaged. During periods of darkness it’s often difficult remain objective, especially in the face of anxiety and fear. I’m grateful I had my Dad to remind me of this important lesson, and now I’m positive his spirit will guide me to people who will give me a nudge in the right direction when I need it.

The Power of Vulnerability

From an evolutionary perspective, I guess the ‘I can do it all alone’ stance on life is more a fight or flight response. For me, it’s always been about keeping my head above water. I knew that if I allowed myself to sink, I’d drown; and the safest way not to drown was to build up the strength not only stay afloat, but swim. That way, I could face the hard-hitting waves my a sense of fearlessness. Over time, I became more resilient and self-reliant; which in turn made it harder to rely on others to support.

It’s only now, in the face of the most challenging tragedy, that I’ve began to unstitch the knots that were tangled beneath the surface. It’s easy to deflect and ignore these knots, as your tapestry – personality, appearance and energy – can appear bright, colourful and thriving on the surface. However, underneath the fabric and patterns, is a person. A raw, striped-back body of insecurities, attachments and vulnerabilities.

The irony is, that in this day in age, we choose to cover up those very parts ourselves; the parts that make us whole. Instead, we strive for ‘perfection’, whatever that is. I see it as a sense of flawlessness, in every area of our lives. The reality is, that this utopian way of being is unattainable, as no-one’s tapestry has been crafted perfectly. If your version of ‘perfection’ is somewhat achieved, it’s most definitely unsustainable. It’s unsustainable because we’re all human, which means we embody the inherent beauty of being perfectly imperfect.

For me, as hard as it is, part of not being ‘perfect’ all the time means letting your guard down and giving yourself the space to be vulnerable. I like to think of this in terms of fire. A fire can only thrive when built on a steady foundation. The terrain needs to be flat, the tinder needs to be dry and the sticks need to be well-placed. All in all, the conditions need to be just right.

I imagine that when a person’s fire is burning brightly (i.e my dad in his last few months of life), they constantly feel like they’re in the right place at the right time; and everything that happens to them, good or bad, just makes sense. They are by no means ‘perfect’, but they can deal with the cards they’ve been dealt with fortitude. They don’t rely on social media or praise to validate their worth, as they’re assured enough in themselves to feel enough. They’ve achieved a work-life balance, feel fulfilled in their relationships and flow through life with ease. The more spiritual of us may class this as ‘enlightenment’. Regardless, these people are admirable, and few and far between.

For most of us, our fire isn’t quite right yet, as some of our basic needs may still be compromised – we could feel drained at work, our health may not be up to scratch, or a relationship may be on the brink of collapse. We don’t know how many fires it will take for us to build one that sustains our core needs. I see it as a trial and error kind of task. The fact is, it may take a lifetime of fires (excellent for pyromaniacs like myself) to build one that burns so brightly that the windiest of blows wouldn’t be able to knock it down.

However, in order to keep building that fire back up, repeatedly, we’ve got to let people in and cut ourselves some slack. As human beings, we’re not meant to go through this life alone, as we innately thrive off human connection.

We’ve got to create a fire-team for when the going get’s tough. We’ve got to allow ourselves to be nourished, supported and tended to; just like everyone else we offer our support to. This way, it’ll become impossible to perish ourselves of our core needs because we’ll trust that the people in our lives will keep on fueling our fire when our flames are weak. We’ll know that whatever happens, we don’t have to do it alone; and we’ll believe we are worthy of the resources needed to keep our flames alight.

Together

We all have superhuman qualities, our own pillars of power – be it kindness, optimism, strength or resilience; but none of us are superhuman, and none of us can do it alone. We all experience loss, grief, heartbreak, stress, illness and trauma; like-wise we all experience joy, happiness, abundance, opportunities and excitement. Together we go through a technicolor of human experiences that are so unique to our presence, as a species, on this earth.

There will be times where our flames are weak, and during those times we need to rely on others to carry the load with humility and acceptance. As we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with ourselves and others, we can unleash our own inner power. This takes courage; but with courage we’ll gain strength.

We’re perfectly imperfect; every single one of us – and we don’t need to resist it anymore. The sun alone is bright, as the rain alone is dark; but together they form a rainbow, which initiates a spark.

 “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” – Brene Brown.

His Last Chapter.

It would make sense to start at the beginning. But since my brain is currently defying all logic, I’m going to go with what feels right. The fact I felt an urge to write this, the day after my Dad’s funeral, leads me to believe that he’s guiding me to articulate his last chapter in whatever I feel fit. So, I’m going to start at the end.

Thursday 17th September 2020 – The Funeral.

The two weeks between the day Dad died and the day of the funeral was surreal, to say the least. Tributes read, poems shared, and lanterns released, we’ve now officially said our goodbyes. With nothing left to do but spread the ashes of his physical body in the places he loved the most, now is our time to fully process what our lives will look like without him. It’s the beginning of a new chapter and, as a family, we’ll attempt to start a fresh.

The funeral (or FUN-eral, as we like to call it) couldn’t have been more perfect, under the circumstances. Restricted to a 30-people limit, due to the ongoing attempt to contain COVID-19, it was a family-affair. Following strict orders by the man himself, absolutely no-one wore black. The small crowd payed their respects in bright colours, to match the vibrant bouquets that glistened as the sun shone on the wooden bed where Dad lay to rest. The priest, having met dad on a couple of occasions, gave the most wholesome and genuine impression of just how special he was. Following his praise, I read a tribute which I wrote on behalf of his five biggest fans. Mum, Katy & my Grandma shared readings and poems which painted Dad in a light that did his legacy justice. The fitting service was followed by a wake at our family home; where we reminisced on a truly beautiful life that was cut too short. All things considered; it was a happy day. We smiled and laughed, filled up on copious amounts of food and a seemingly unlimited source of alcohol (we resorted to ‘Winefulness’, just this once!).

Two Weeks of Change.

Leading up to ‘the day’, everyone in the family had their parts to play. As if she hadn’t proven her strength already, Mum went into full-on Wonderwoman mode. For those who aren’t aware, there is A LOT of preparation that goes into a funeral. From caterers, to the order of service, to the flowers that need to be ordered – she did it all, on top of dealing with the technicalities of dad dying e.g. cancelling postal deliveries, managing bank accounts and sorting organ donors. Our extended family chipped in where they felt fit, which we are hugely thankful for. With my brother & I working full-time, Poppy starting her 2nd year of Sixth Form College, and Katy trying to keep her mental health issues at bay, Mum couldn’t have done it without the practical and emotional support of her sisters. It’s in times like these where family, and friend’s, true colours shine. Supporting someone who is caught up in an emotional whirlwind of grief isn’t easy, so those who stick around deserve every ounce of recognition.

The decision to start my new job, two days after Dad died (great timing!), wasn’t an easy one. I was torn between wanting to be at home to support my family through their individual grieving processes, which work would’ve fully supported; and longing to get out of the house and into a stable routine, as a way to manage my own mental health. Although at first my decision seemed bizarre to some, as this is what ‘compassionate leave’ is for (right?), I’m not sure how I would’ve managed without feeling that sense of purpose every single day. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve built up a support network of colleagues who have gone to great lengths to make me feel such a strong sense of belonging. I feel like I can fulfil every inch of my potential, for now at least, doing what I love most. Working as a Early Years Teaching Assistant, at the Primary School I attended myself as a child, is exactly what I needed.

I got the job during lockdown, whilst my Dad was undergoing chemotherapy at home. He was beyond happy for me. Having worked at a summer camp in the US for four years, the last one being the ultimate test of character, he knew this was the job for me. We’d also discussed how I wanted to live at home for the time being, to be a support to my Mum and sister. Getting the job was a massive comfort to him. We joked about how I’d have a salary and a pension, like a ‘proper adult’. Things started to fall into place, and he was a part of that. Therefore, I did feel like I owed it to Dad to start this job, on-time, regardless of the circumstance. Everyday I’ve felt him with me. He’s part of every conversation, action and daydream. I visualise myself channelling my grief into a tapestry of wisdom, which I can already feel radiating through the children and co-workers that cross my path. Aren’t they lucky.

Saturday 5th September 2020 – The Passing.

The moment I got the call that Dad had died, I felt an overwhelmingly strong sense of relief; like a huge, all-consuming weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I’ve never been an angry person, but during the last week of his life in particular, it was like a dark cloud had come over me. I’ll go into this a bit more about this once I cover the facts, as it’ll make more sense once the scene is set.

My dad passed at 9:15am on the Saturday morning, bringing closure to the third week of care at St. Barnabas Hospice. In retrospect, there are a couple of reasons why my family feel he waited for this day in particular – the first being the significance the time of his passing carried.

Over the past couple of years, Dad’s favourite thing to do at 9am on a Saturday morning was participate in our local 5k park-run. He completed 54 runs in the two years between his initial cancer scare, and the second diagnosis at the start of 2020. As well as staying as active as he could, the wake-up call he experienced meant he made these two years count – practically, emotionally and spiritually. He decided he’d quit with all the ‘should dos’ and adopted very much a “fuck it” attitude (mind my French). During this time him and my mum embarked on an epic holiday to New York and Jamaica, to celebrate their anniversary; he built a cabin at the bottom of the garden, because why not; and worked at home a lot more, so he could spend more time building squirrel tables in the garden. In other words, Dad didn’t waste a moment. He started doing things for HIM, and about time too.

The park-run every Saturday morning meant a lot to him. It was his space to breathe and prove to himself that he’s capable of anything. Aside from the fact that each week he ‘beat’ his previous time, he loved the community feel of this weekly event. It gave him a sense of belonging that sparked an aliveness that I’m so grateful he found. The quickest time known to complete the park-run is around 15 minutes. Therefore, our theory is that Dad timed to finish the last chapter of his life in record-breaking style. He was a stubborn man, in the best of ways, and boy did he put up a fight. In these final few weeks, he wasn’t going to let any last drop of water of breath of air be wasted on him. This was his last chance to shine, after all. I’m not sure if Dad ever realised how much his light shone towards the end of his life, which is why I feel it’s my duty to attempt to put his victory into words. He’s not a materialistic man; but his triumph is deserving of the shiniest trophy that heaven has to offer. At 9:15am, two Saturday mornings ago, he crossed the line in style.

The second gleam of significance comes from the fact he passed away on the birthday of his idol: the one and only, Freddie Mercury. My little sister, Poppy, and my Dad bonded over their love of queen. In fact, when the film ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ came out, they went to see it in the cinema SEVEN times. It goes without saying that they’ve lost track of times they watched it post it’s release onto Netflix. Since his prognosis in March, Dad reassured us everyday that when the time comes, he will make his way up to party in the sky with Freddie. He was absolutely, undeniably certain that this would be the case, and that he would be in a better place because of it. Therefore, the fact he passed on this day didn’t strike as a coincidence at all. We’re convinced Dad intended to make his way up for, what I imagine, was the most glamorous birthday party Mercury ever hosted. From this year onwards, the 5th September will be celebrated in style – queen-themed and beers at the ready. We’ll cheers to all the rock stars that died before their time, and all the heroes that followed in their footsteps.

As the legend himself so rightly said, “If you see it there, darling, then it’s there”.

Three Weeks of Torture.

It got to the point at home where he was unable to walk up the stairs, go to the toilet or get through a pain-free night. Therefore, the decision was made that he’d be transferred to St. Barnabas hospice, where he’d have accessible pain-relief and bedside support from professionals. As a family we decided this was what was best for Dad, as his comfort was our main priority. Despite the ridiculous amount of Morphine he was administered through his syringe driver, there’s no sugar-coating how difficult it was to watch Dad fade away during the last three weeks of his life. As the dosage gradually increased, we were informed by the nurses that he’d become more and more ‘sleepy’. However, the knock-on effects of the drugs and fast-spreading tumour also meant Dad suffered several side effects – hallucinations, sickness, constipation, and extreme swelling. Due to being unable to eat, as the cancer was blocking his bowel, Dad’s organs quite naturally started to give up. There is no other word in my vocabulary I can use to describe the overall feeling of this time other than ‘torture’.

Despite the pain of watching him quite literally starve to death, we basked in bursts of positive energy. Dad was a unique case. He surprised the nurses daily with the utter perseverance he endured in the face of tragic adversity. One of the most memorable was about a week before he died. We were all sitting beside his hospital bed, where we spent most of our time, when he suddenly leapt out of his hospital bed and said he was going for a walk. “What are you guys waiting for?”, he asked, full of spirit. With the assistance of his walker, which he utilized to the max to remain as independent as he could, he took a quick trip to the toilet then headed outside to the courtyard. As if this wasn’t enough, as he walked out the door he hit us with his signature dance move – ‘the guns’. Arms as thin as twigs, and jaw-bones as sharp as razorblades, he found the energy to make his family laugh. On deaths-door or not, nothing was going to get in the way of his ability to create a silver lining in pretty much any situation. He went for his walk, then had a nap. Another mic-drop memory.

During the last few days, he wasn’t really conscious. He made sounds, but they were few and far between. As I mentioned earlier, it got to the point where I was angry that he was still alive. I couldn’t stand watching him getting more and more disorientated, confused and emaciated. I knew that if he had his way, he would’ve kicked the bucket when he couldn’t stand on his own two feet or communicate anymore. He didn’t want for us to see him so weak and feable. That’s why, now, I feel lucky to have experienced this transition. The relief was almost worth it. I witnessed him in such a crippled state that when I was told that he’d passed it felt I could finally breathe.

The night before he died, my Mum experienced a truly magical moment. Having slept by his bedside for the three weeks prior, on constant call for anything he might need, she was the most loyal and loving wife a dying man could’ve wished for. With a tank pretty much empty, he used his last ounce of energy to pull her into his arms. He held her there for what felt like hours. This was their last, most wholesome, embrace as a couple who’d spent the past twenty-two years by eachothers side through thick and thin. In this moment, he gave her permission to move on; to ‘enjoy’ the rest of her life. An act of true loyalty, affection and endearment. My parents were a power unit, and together they could get through anything. Here’s to true true love.

Forever in our hearts, our smiles and our spirits; we’ll love you always, Dad.

P.S – If you’d like to make a donation to St. Barnabas Hospice, in tribute to my wonderful Dad’s life, the link is as follows: http://www.chalcraftfunerals.co.uk/funeral-details/?tribute=davidrodwell&fbclid=IwAR0NnQXEKYLwwN-MVBx8yhb-9nj30d4nxIhOfhuzxyjhdINulzaqX1GFpRI

Together, We Fly.

I believe that the universe is sending us signals, all the time. Whether you’re in tune with them or not is a different matter, but all the same, our lives are full of meaning.

The vibe of our household over the past few months has been nothing but positive. Sure there have been hard days, but I’d say 90% of the time the six of us are happy. The relative joy we’ve experienced as a family is like nothing I’ve ever felt before, and the impact that’s had on my life already brings me so much hope for the future.

This morning it felt like there was a particular lightness in the air. Some days feel like that, light. Some days feel much darker, like there’s a heaviness weighing me down. Relatively speaking, today was a good day. Dad had his weetabix, made it down to his cabin at the bottom of the garden, and was up for a chat. Days like this, I drop everything to bask in what could be one of the last conversations I have with him; and we shared a cabin talk that I know I will remember for the rest of my life.

It’s worth noting that we’ve endured hundreds of cabin talks together in the past few months, but this one was extra special. The quotes I’ve included below came directly out of Dad’s mouth, which I understand you can’t appreciate fully without hearing first-hand, but it’s a start. The energy of the words we shared felt profound, as we spent two hours pondering on the utter bittersweetness of our current situation. Not knowing whether Dad is going to live for two more weeks, or two more months, you would have thought we would be dwelling in sadness and heartache. An outsider might even assume that we’d be angry, at the universe, for subjecting us to the fatal consequence of my Dad’s cancer. But, much to our surprise, this simply isn’t the case. 

Snippets from The Cabin Talk

“I know I’m weak on the outside, but I feel strong on the inside. It’s not just about me though, it’s about you guys. Mum, you four kids, we’re a collective power with no particular purpose other than to be and not leave anyone behind.

The illness is what it is. You’d think I’d wake up and think “oh shit, I’m really ill”, but I don’t. I never feel like I’ve woken up into a nightmare. The nightmare is the thing you can’t change. You’d been dealt a pack of cards, and that’s it. You can choose whether you play the cards to your advantage or not. Honestly, I look at what has happened here and, although I would’ve liked the future to be different, as a family I don’t think we would’ve ever had this meaningful time together if it wasn’t for this. No one wants to die early, but you can’t trade off the two things. These are the cards we’ve been dealt, and as a family we’ve had the ability to pull together, realise what we’ve got and move forward. It’s just happened, and I’m really thankful for that. I still feel like I’m going to be part of your futures anyway, as I don’t really consider my physical presence as that material. If I’m not around it’s one less thing to worry about, as I won’t be ill. You guys know a lot about how I would be thinking, and I will continue to live through you.”

“I feel comfortable that you guys are in a pretty good place, even though I acknowledge that it’s not going to be easy. I think you’re in as good a place as you could be, in your individual ways. That’s important for me to see. There’s a lot we’ve done ourselves – having these conversations, spending time with each other and gauging what we as a family can deal with in terms of practical support at home. Hopefully I can be here and things will gradually wind down. But, to be honest, if things went downhill really quickly I think we’d deal with it. I think we’ve done enough groundwork to crack on and get on with life.”

The Birds

I mentioned at the start about signs from the universe. I guess I see it kind of like a jigsaw, life. Some people are just naturally good at noticing what pieces fit together. It might take others a bit more time, but they’ll get there too. I believe that a lot of people go through life missing the subtle signs – the book that was left on a counter, a conversation you overhear in the street, or a smell that triggers a memory. It’s so easy to get caught up in the fast-paced nature of life, so much so that you miss what the universe might be trying to tell you. Recently I’ve been paying particular attention. My awareness has heightened beyond the practical doings of my day. Maybe that’s because I know that once my Dad dies, he will be the one I’ll be looking to for signs that he’s guiding me. The more I consciously practise this now, the more comfort I know I will get when the time comes. 

Once you start making a conscious effort to notice the signs, I find it’s hard to stop. I’ve found it’s made a massive difference to how I think and perceive the world around me on a day-to-day basis. It’s like finding that piece of the jigsaw that you’ve been patiently trying to find. Or finding the answer to a question that you didn’t even know you were asking in the first place. 

We’ve noticed that on Dad’s ‘good days’ he’ll be up for talking in the morning, but by the afternoon the tiredness kicks in. That’s when we leave him to rest, and get on with whatever plans we have for the day. On the afternoon of this particular cabin talk, my Mum and I decided to go to the beach. It was the first hot day in a while, so inevitably the car park was crammed, and whilst waiting for a space to park I noticed an impressive flock of birds fleeting in sync upon the roof of a nearby building. In awe of this natural wonder, which in my twenty two years of life I seem to have never come across, I pointed my observation out to my Mum. This is when I found out that she is secretly a knowledgeable naturalist (always the underdog), as she came out with the fact that this flurry of birds is called a ‘murmuration’. Once I’d googled it to check she wasn’t having me on, we both watched the vast flock of birds sweep through the sky, grateful to have witnessed such a sight. I felt like I’d noticed this for a reason. 

So, eventually we found a parking space and walked down to the beach. My Mum had been there earlier that day, in the beating sun, with her friend. However, by this point, the clouds had cast and the wind had picked up. We braved the breeze for about half an hour, then decided there wasn’t much chance of the weather brightening up, so headed home. On the way back to the car I turned to my Mum and said “it’s a shame the weather turned, but at least we saw the murmuration”.

As we were driving home, an email popped up on my phone. For the past year or so I’ve subscribed to a site called the ‘Daily Om’ which sends me articles and horoscopes. Today, I was hit with an article called ‘Birds Fly in a V’. After reading the title I thought how much of a coincidence this was, considering what my Mum and I had just witnessed with the birds. I read it once, then out loud to my Mum. The article described how birds fly in a V which works to reduce the air resistance for the whole flock. This way they can move faster than they would be able to as individuals. When the bird at the front of the V gets tired, she will move to the back of the flock and a more rested bird will take her place. 

Connecting The Dots

Just then, I started to connect the dots. This is exactly what my Dad and I were talking about earlier today. The reason we’ve got through, and will get through, the cards we’ve been dealt as a family is because we take it in turns to hold each other up. We’ve gained strength through our instinct to not leave anyone behind. I’m not sure whether our morals were influenced by our love of Lilo and Stitch as children, brainwashed by the famous quote “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind”, my Mum and Dad’s parenting skills, or a combination of both. Either way, we’re reaping the benefits now. 

Like birds that fly in a V, our family is as strong as it is because of each other’s presence. We believe that the universe gave us this lockdown period for a reason as, for the first time in eight years, we have all been living under the same roof. For many families, this has been a struggle; but for us, it’s been nothing but a blessing. There have been days where one or more of us have felt weak, helpless and lost in the face of a future without Dad. On those days someone has needed to take the lead, carrying the flock forward. Throughout our whole life Dad has been the leader of the pack – the breadwinner, the chauffeur to parties, the shoulder to cry on. He’s the glue of the family, and the rock that we’ve always been able to depend on. But now we’ve been hit by an unexpected gust of wind, and it’s Dad’s turn to take a rest. In turn, each one of us has a duty to take his place; and as one of our wings starts to ache, we’ll rely on another to fly at the front for a while. This way, we’ll each find respite in a challenging situation, with the awareness that every member of the flock is equally as important in maintaining the refuge that is a loving, supportive and caring family. 

We’ve created a symbol of this togetherness; which has been carefully designed by my Dad in the form of a family crest. It includes all of the things that mean a lot to our family – music notes, a paintbrush, birds, trees, paw prints etc. Last week, Katy and I got the crest tattooed onto our skin, as a permanent reminder that we are part of this collective power. The presence the six of us have shared during this time has been enlightening. Going forward, together physically or not, we’ve gained the strength to keep moving forward. For that, I’m forever thankful.

The Family Crest

A simple man, with a simple plan.

Most of us will have pondered the hypothetical question “if it was your last day on earth, what would you do?”. It’s interesting to think about. Who would you really want to spend your last 24 hours with? What would you really like to do, or eat, or see? 

Of course then there’s the ‘bucket list’. If you were told you have a limited time left on earth, what would you like to experience? Where would you like to go? What would you like to achieve?

Over the past few months questions like these have become not-so-hypothetical for my Dad. If you know the man, you might’ve guessed that his answers to these questions were nothing extraordinary; in fact quite the opposite. His sole wish for the end of his life is to enjoy the little things – coffees on the cabin porch, walks in the nature reserve next to our house, and meaningful conversations with the people he loves. He wants to spend time with his family – the people he has dedicated his whole adult life to making happy. 

A simple man, with a simple plan.

Now

I’m going to start with how Dad is doing right now, because it’s a rollercoaster of a story. It’s worth noting that Dad’s symptoms fluctuate from day to day, so ‘taking each day as it comes’ has become imperative, for all of us, in dealing with the uncertainty.

A couple of months ago my Mum booked an Airbnb in Lyme Regis, for a mini-break away to ‘celebrate’ the end of my Dad’s chemotherapy treatment. On Tuesday morning, they hopped in the car and off they went, a smile on both of their faces. It was a somewhat miracle, considering the chain of events over the past month or so. A silver lining to say the least. From the family group chat I’ve been informed that Dad has managed to drink a pint of Guinness (hallelujah!), drive around the coasts of the West Country, and even eat some fudge!

It’s amazing how your joy becomes so relative in a situation like this. I’m over the moon to see my parents spending this quality time together – they really couldn’t deserve it more. My writing has been put on the backburner, until now, as I’ve been spending every single minute I can with my Dad. But whilst he’s spending this time away from home with my Mum, I wanted to dedicate some time to reflect on the past few months. Not only is this a cathartic process for me, but hopefully for those who read it too.

 

The First Blow: Acceptance

On the 19th March 2020, my Dad was told the cancer in his bowel (nicknamed ‘Todd’) couldn’t be operated on, as it had spread outside of his colon. He had a tumour the size of a tennis ball removed two years before however, as the doctors cautioned, some of the cancerous cells lingered. Dad’s consultant was speculative about whether palliative chemotherapy would be worth his while, especially with the risk of COVID-19, but ultimately they left the decision up to him. If successful, this would prevent the cancer in his bowel from spreading and potentially give him more time. He had the weekend to break the news to his family and decide whether he would go ahead with treatment. 

Almost three months have passed, and the utter rawness of that evening still gives me the shivers. I was the first one, out of the children, my dad told. He sat me down, at the end of his bed in the cabin, and had to relive what must have been the worst meeting of his life (as a lawyer, he’s been on the firing line of some rough ones). I remember feeling like the ground had literally caved in from underneath me; like my whole world was falling apart. Time completely stood still. In those initial moments, I couldn’t even begin to envisage my life without the man who has always been by my side. It was my worst nightmare come true and, the most painful thing was, that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

As a matter-of-fact kind of guy, as difficult as it was, Dad didn’t gloss over the hard-truth. He explained what all the medical terms meant, the treatment options, and worst case scenario. Then, he began to feed me with seeds of gratitude. From the word go he claimed how ‘lucky’ he was for being able to have those two years of optimal health from when his tumour was initially removed till now. He voiced how grateful he was that he had all of his family around him (thank you lockdown!) to spend whatever time he’s got left making the most of every moment together. Somehow, beknown to me at the time, he’d found the strength to accept his fate. In that same moment, he had absolute faith that I would be able to do the same. 

After what was understandably the most difficult weekend of all of our lives, my Dad decided that he was going to give the chemotherapy a shot. As it would be for any parent, it was heart-breaking to witness the absolute devastation that his children suffered at the receiving end of such news. Even if the odds were against him, he was willing to try absolutely anything that could potentially make a difference to his prognosis. As a family, we went full-blown Kim & Aggy on cleaning the house; as the chemotherapy would automatically put him in the vulnerable category of individuals who are likely to catch COVID-19, which would be fatal in his condition. This meant we all had to be extremely careful during the lockdown period, with the added risk of infecting Dad (At least Katy’s OCD was satisfied – silver lining!).

A couple of weeks after he confirmed his decision, Dad started his fortnightly sessions of chemotherapy at Worthing hospital. I don’t know the details, as he doesn’t like to talk about it, but I know he dreaded those six hours in ‘the chair’ every other Wednesday. As a family of yogis, we tried every means of alternative treatment alongside the chemotherapy – daily wheatgrass shots, visualisation and phone calls with holistic therapists. All we could do was try our best to keep him safe from COVID-19, help him manage the side effects of the treatment, and remain as positive as we possibly could.

We got into a rhythm of making the most of his (relatively) ‘good’ days and sitting beside him through his bad days, which became pretty predictable as the weeks went on. Optimistically speaking, this predictability provided some certainty. However, the side effects were cumulative, and by week ten of treatment, my Dad was too weak to follow through with the last round of chemo. Therefore, all we could do was wait for the scan results and pray that the treatment he did complete had a positive effect. In the meantime, he was prescribed Morphine to manage his pain, and anti-sickness medication to help combat the nausea. 

Up till this point, anyone who knows us as a family might assume we had unwavering faith that Dad’s cancer would be cured. My parents brought us up to be optimistic, glass half-full kind of people. Although we’re not particularly religious, we have a strong spiritual connection to The Universe, which we could’ve assumed would fight our Dad’s corner. He accumulated a lifetime of good karma after all; and he was the last person in the world that deserved this.

This wasn’t so much the case, for the immediate family anyway. Even before Dad started the chemotherapy treatment, with his prompting, we started to accept the inevitability of the situation. After the initial shock and devastation of the fact we were losing our Dad, and my Mum her husband, as a family we had to pull together not only to keep our heads above water, but to cherish every single moment of this time. Don’t get me wrong, there have been days where one of us falls into the pits of despair at the mere thought of Dad not being at our wedding, or being a Grandfather to our children. Sometimes it feels so surreal that I literally have to pinch myself to believe what is happening. But we’ve clung onto the notion to impermanence; the idea that “this too shall pass”. After binge-watching the family series ‘This Is Us’, we’ve been living by the analogy that even the “the sourest lemon that life has to offer can be turned into something resembling lemonade”. It’s safe to say that, from this point onwards, every one of us is going to live a life that would make our Dad proud.

Subconsciously, I think we all realised that denying or becoming angry at a situation we had absolutely no control over would simply waste precious time we could be spending with Dad. Just to note, I understand how difficult this would be in the case of a more sudden loss. The fact we’ve had this time to process the situation with Dad is fortunate, and something we’re extremely grateful for. Being around someone who has accepted the fate of a terminal illness is a gift, which I’ll talk about this more later. 

On Dad’s ‘good’ days, we’d talk in the garden for hours on end about the interconnectedness of the world around us and how finite our time on this planet is. We’d reminisce about childhood memories, basking in the good times. We created a list of all of Dad’s favourite movies, and songs and places. He was becoming more and more open about how he was feeling, which created a safe space for us to do the same.

Between the two of us, we wrote in a notebook. Both being avid poem writers, we communicated through verse. I’ve told him absolutely everything he needs to know about my future plans and dreams, and how important his legacy will be in every single one of them. The open communication during this time has been invaluable to the process of accepting the fate of my Dad. It’s easy to walk on eggshells around the person suffering, which I imagine makes them feel more lonely. I think it’s important to ask what you need to ask, and say what you need to say; because the last thing you want to do is to live with the slightest fragment of regret.

The Second Blow: Gratitude

 A couple of days before Father’s Day, Todd made his presence loud and clear. The symptoms of my Dad’s tumour were unbearable and he was rushed to hospital. Once stabilised, Dad’s consultant broke the news to him that the chemotherapy didn’t work. Todd had made himself at home in the best part of my Dad’s bowel, and it became clear that the devil himself was planning to outstay his welcome. To all of our despair, his prognosis resorted to a matter of weeks. A hard blow, period.

My Mum, being the persuasive lady that she is, managed to convince the consultant to let all four of Dad’s children come and see him on Father’s Day. We’d bought Dad a pair of (rather expensive!) Nike trainers, as when things were looking up he talked about getting back into the weekly Park Runs. We wanted to give him an incentive. Luckily, the dark irony of this gift tickled my Dad’s sense of humour, and he appreciated the thought. My Dad decided to give the trainers to my cousin, an athlete in the making, who is lovingly going to take strides in his Uncle’s legacy. After our visiting time was over, the four of us took a trip to the pub outside our house, where we bought take-away pints to toast to our Dad. It was a bittersweet day, but we embraced every moment. As from next year, we will be celebrating Dad’s idea of ‘the best day ever’ in style – coffee, sea swims, dominos pizza and drinks at the pub. Cheers to that!

Dad stayed in the hospital for seven days. The doctors wanted to get him to a point where he knew roughly what he could manage to eat at home. Throughout his stay, the palliative care team were in contact with St. Barnabas Hospice, where Dad was put on the waiting list for a bed. It was decided that Dad would come home until his symptoms become unmanageable again – when he’ll then be transferred to the hospice and given adequate pain-relief.

If you Google the hospice you’ll see that it is the most serene, welcoming and hospitable of settings. It offers support not only to the sufferer, but just as much to their families, which is a massive comfort to Dad. After a while of being around someone who is dying, you quickly start to appreciate the philosophies that end-of-life patients embody. It’s truly inspirational, and I’m hugely grateful to have experienced such shifts in perspective already.

I’ve mentioned the idea of gratitude a lot. Once I accepted what was happening to my Dad, this came very naturally to me. I began to think of all sorts of ways I could convey my gratitude, for everything my Dad’s done for me, to him. You can actually start to get pretty creative with this kind of thing, and treat it like a little project! Alongside my letters and poems, I started texting him every evening with one thing I’m grateful to him for. I gave him daily massages and hugs and told him I love him ALL the time (it probably got quite annoying). The most ‘extra’ thing I’ve done is reach out to the alumni of the US summer camp he worked out when he was 18-years old. As a result, I’m in contact with people from all around the globe who have nothing but kind words to say about my Dad. I’ve accumulated a few iconic photos, and amusing stories of a handsome-looking, mullet-rocking ‘Rodney’ to use at my discretion too – winner, winner! 

Most importantly, I can’t empathise enough how positive this time together has been. It’s difficult to comprehend, but my Dad’s optimism has been contagious. Every single word he’s said and action he’s taken has illuminated the heart’s of the people around him. The gratitude we’ve cultivated for the little things he’s able to do, like watering the plants in the garden or eating a square of chocolate, fuels our resilience and strength every single day. Absolutely nothing is taken for granted, for this time together is sacred.

It might sound strange, but I actually feel lucky. I’ve had so many conversations with my Dad that I never would’ve had if things had worked out differently. He’s showered me with so much wisdom; which I feel has cleansed every single ounce of negativity out of my system. It makes me think about what The Universe is trying to tell us, as a family. Maybe it’s time to slow down, to come together. Perhaps we’ve been running on automatic, unconscious energy for too long, and this is an opportunity to re-evaluate what is truly important.

Whatever the reason, we’re not bitter. We know we WILL get through this; and the fruit of our labour is going to be a blessing in disguise. Dad will be looking down at us, a pint in one hand and a lamb madras in the other, bursting with pride. One day, in harmony with our destined fate, we’ll be together again – the family in the stars.

Going forward

The support myself and my family have received over the past few months have been overwhelming. The love, kind words and humble offerings that the people have blessed us with has been a massive comfort in such a difficult time. I often put myself in the position of someone trying to support a friend, colleague, or even acquaintance on social media going through this; and whole-heartedly appreciate how difficult it is to know what to say or how to act. As a family we’ve been very open, online and in person, about dad’s prognosis; which I personally feel has made it easier to reach out for support. However, I know some people aren’t so lucky, and may feel much more alone than I do during this process.

Therefore, I feel like I owe it to not only the people who are victims of a similar devastating loss, but the ones who are desperately trying to support them, to articulate my grief in a way that may help anyone affected by a situation like this. I’ve read, listened and reflected a lot over the past few months; and have learnt a great deal about my own ways of coping as we’re nearing the end of Dad’s life. Although I can predict how I might deal with the shock of my Dad not being around, I can only speak from my experience at present; as this loss is going to be beyond any challenge I’ve ever had to prepare myself for.

What I do know is, going forward, my life is going to be filled with colour. My Dad’s legacy will enrich every single thing I do, and have an impact on every single person I meet. There won’t be a day that goes by where I don’t feel his presence, or look out for signs that he’s still with us. From an outsider’s perspective, I think it’s important to know this. Unless you’ve experienced such an significant loss yourself, from what I’ve gathered, it’s very difficult to comprehend how it’s possible to stay so positive. As a family, this is undoubtedly the hardest thing we’ll ever have to go through, but it’s not going to stop us. My Dad will be as alive as ever in the depths of our hearts, and the paths we will lead in his footsteps are going to open us up to so many life-changing opportunities, adventures and experiences.

I want to end by thanking every single person who is looking out for us during this time. The love and support we’ve received as a family is heart-warming, and we’re so so grateful.

The Daisychain Effect.

This morning I sat, in my garden, amongst a bed full of daisies. Two months into lockdown, it’s safe to say I’ve got a lot more time on my hands, and am beginning to get used to the idea of purposefully ‘doing nothing’. I’ve been daydreaming a lot more, spending time reminiscing happy childhood memories, and generally piecing my thought processes together. Today’s mental wandering took me back in time to the countless lunchtimes my friends and I spent creating daisychains in the corner of the playing field at primary school. “Those were the days”, I thought to myself. Carefree, happy-go lucky, blissful days – where the only thing on my mind was the selection of penny sweets I was going to choose on ‘Friday Treat Day’. I longed to relive what it felt like to have nothing to do, or care about, other than sewing together these fragile fragments of nature, whilst light-heartedly chatting with my friends.

So, with a childlike curiosity, which the more spiritually inclined of us might refer to as a ‘beginner’s mind’, I began to daisychain my way back in time. I didn’t last for long, as the beating sun of the springtime heatwave began to take its toll on my concentration. But it was long enough to experience the psychological effects. This simple act of picking a daisy, carefully piercing a hole into it’s stem with the tip of my fingernail, threading another daisy through, then repeating the process over and over, created a state of ‘flow’. In psychological terms ‘flow’ can be described as “the mental state in which the person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity”. (Moore, n.d.) I recognised the feeling, which I’ve felt many times before – when I’ve been painting, writing, swimming, doing yoga, playing the piano etc. There are so many activities which we, as humans, can engage in to activate this present and calm peace of mind.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who, quote-on-quote, struggles to “switch his brain off”, and it was affecting his sleep. He’s a ‘Tigger type’ personality – always bouncing around, looking for something else to do to keep busy or entertained. These types of people are typically high achievers, their own worse critics, but also a lot of fun. Anyway, as most yoga teachers would, I asked if he’d tried meditating. His answer surprised me initially. He said, something along the lines of, “not in your conventional form, but when I swim I feel like I would if I was meditating”. He described the way his mind clears and worries disappear when he’s in the water, nothing but the gentle harmony of the waves to keep him company. It made me think – the simplest things we can do, whether that’s wading your way through water or picking daisies, immerse us into this zone of mental stillness.

My point is that ‘meditating’, what I personally like to refer to as ‘mindful activity’, is not exclusive. You don’t need to go to India and complete a Yoga Teacher Training or sacrifice your everyday commitments and responsibilities to achieve a peaceful state of mind. There’s a common misconception that sitting on rocks, in the mountains, meditating for hours on end is the only way to be ‘zen’. Back in the day, in certain cultures, this was achievable. But in today’s day of age, where life is fast-paced, technology-driven and full of ‘Tiggers’, this lifestyle is inconceivable. Therefore, it’s understandable why, for many, traditional forms of meditation are intimidating. However, this needn’t be the case. We can go back to those childhood activities which naturally engaged our mindfulness – like picking daisies, looking at the bugs crawling on the ground or spotting animal shapes in the clouds. At what age did societal ‘norms’ indoctrinate us to believe that we could no longer do these things? At what age did the flick switch from being carefree and curious, to burdened with emotional baggage that disengages us from the present moment? The reality is, we can flick this switch on and off whenever we choose to. Daily, weekly or monthly, we are in complete control as to how often we engage in this state of ‘flow’, in whatever way works for us.

As a visual learner, I’ve always been a sucker for a good analogy. The process of creating a daisychain represents something very meaningful to me, when I use it to reflect on my life. Daisychains are special because, in the process, you’re creating something man-made out of nature. Using the universe’s gifts to your advantage in the most opportunistic and artful way. The fragile nature of a daisy means you must pay extra attention to the act of piercing the delicate stem. As you weave the stems of two daisies together, lengthening the chain with every flower, you’re immersing yourself in a world of potential, of infinite possibility. You can sit there for hours and make the chain as long as you want. You can stop and make a crown, a bracelet or a pair of earrings. The art of picking the daisies, then carefully and patiently sewing them together, can reflect our path through life. Your opportunities are your daisies. As we consider each opportunity that comes our way, we have to be mindful about how we can use it to help us create the life we desire.  

When creating a daisychain, you might pick a daisy which stem is too short, or too thin, or you might simply be too restless to sit still long enough to participate. Comparably, in life, you might be offered a job opportunity which will doesn’t quite do your skills justice; you might grin and bear a friendship which drains your energy; or you might say ‘yes’ to whatever comes your way due to the fear of missing out. Sometimes the rush of life causes us to be mindless and impulsive when making decisions. We find ourselves reacting as oppose to responding to situations as we accept, surrender and comply with what we feel we ‘should’ do to make our lives bearable. But the fact is, we shouldn’t just have to ‘bear’ life. We shouldn’t have to put up with things that don’t align with our values, just to avoid uncertainty.

 Ultimately, every obstacle that is presented to us on our path, good or bad, needs to be responded to with care. However big or small, we have to be realistic, objective and question if this change feels right for us, no-one else. If it does, great. Weave that job or relationship or new hobby into your daisychain. Use it to make your chain stronger, your life better. Each daisy should be added with the intent to create a more meaningful path. If a daisy is added carelessly, the link between the stems is weak, unsustainable, and all your previous effort is wasted. That’s not to say that you should fear making mistakes, quite the opposite. Just like you would take out a daisy and replace it if it is too weak to be part of the daisychain, you always have a chance to evolve your life for the better. If you’ve messed up, try again. It’s not the messing up that’s the problem, it’s the inflexibility to learn from your mistakes that could result in the daisychain falling apart.

Find the time to be present and still, long enough to remind yourself what it means to be alive. Mindfully weave your daisies together to form a life that’s rich with intent and value. The daisies you picked, the opportunities you created for yourself, and the chances you took, have led you to where you are today.

Bibliography

Moore, C. (n.d.). What is Flow in Psychology. Retrieved from Positive Psychology: https://positivepsychology.com/what-is-flow/

Resilience

From my experience, I’ve noticed that resilience seems to correlate with adversity. The more adverse circumstances you are subject to in your life, the more likely you are to be able to recover from difficulties later on. As a ‘resilient person’, you may be blessed with a naturally ‘thick skin’, able to cope with whatever has come your way from a young age. However, it is more so likely that the circumstances you’ve faced in your life has forced you to reevaluate how you navigate yourself through the world. You’ve been placed in situations where it’s up to you whether you sink or swim. The choice has been yours, and you’ve chosen wisely. 

At the end of the day, everybody has problems, regardless of whether or not the world is facing a global pandemic. People get sick, relationships collapse and terrible accidents happen. The world isn’t an easy place to live in, let alone when we’re surrounded by this uncertainty. The current social climate has created a whole new level of anxiety. From your next door neighbour who’s child is suffering with a mental illness, to the celebrity who’s had to cancel their shows, to the NHS staff who are working their a**ses off to keep patients alive; the repercussions that the citizens of the planet are facing at the moment are particularly destructive. The isolation side of COVID-19 is one of the most adverse situations that many of us have ever found ourselves in, heaven forbid if you’ve consequently lost someone due to the virus. It’s for this reason that building up our resilience, even just to deal with the stress of this situation alone, is so fundamentally important.

In an ideal world (for me, at least), we would all be consciously maturing our mental resilience from a young age, despite what we are going through. Some of us have higher levels of resilience anyway due to all sorts of biological factors e.g having naturally higher levels of serotonin (the ‘happy chemical’) in the brain; environmental factors e.g access to good nutrition and fair working conditions; or social factors e.g. having an extremely strong support system and meaningful hobbies. A combination of all three would alleviate a lot of stress. However, for many, there is an imbalance somewhere in the mix, which results in an inability to cope adequately in difficult situations. To fight the waves of cognitive unrest, which everybody experiences to varying extremes, we must work on cultivating this resilience intentionally. I don’t feel like it should take a global pandemic, childhood trauma or the loss of a loved one to push us to push us to foster this growth. 

If unattended to from a young age, how mental resilience manifests is bittersweet. Unfortunately, the trigger it takes for individuals to embark on this introspective journey is often chaotic. It can feel like the world is spinning at a million miles an hour and there’s nothing you can do to slow it down. The domino effect of struggles in your life catastrophize to the point where you may want to give up. What’s the point in struggling on when everything that’s happening is out of your control? It may take some time, and a lot of mental energy, to realise that the one thing you can control is your mind. No matter how difficult the circumstance, no-one and nothing can wreak havoc on your mental resilience if you choose to cultivate it. I believe that the younger the age when adversity strikes, the deeper this seed of resilience is planted in the individual. Therefore in a way, we can almost be thankful, if the individual comes out the other side – as the saying goes, “there is no light without darkness”. I can’t imagine someone who has lived a perfectly happy, content and prosperous life would fulfil their purpose (whatever that may be) half as much as someone who has suffered some form of severe distress. How many renowned celebrities or nobel peace prize winners are there who have had everything handed to them on a plate? From Taylor Swift to Martin Luther King, these people have had to suffer a degree of hardship to get to a place where they had something worthy of sharing with the world. As a friend once said, “you should be proud of your scars, they’re signs of strength not weakness”. 

Having been through what I have, I know I would’ve benefited hugely from being encouraged to become aware of my emotions and subconsciously developed coping strategies from a young age. Young people’s minds are like sponges – impressionable, adaptable and will soak up whatever information is cast upon them. This can have extreme benefits, but just as much negative impact. Mindfulness routines and mental health prevention-schemes should be cultivated in schools, and parents should be educated on ways to build up their child’s emotional intelligence. In my opinion, it’s just as important, if not more important, than learning your times tables or what year the Berlin Wall was built. These are interventions that would make a huge difference to how children view themselves, others and the world around them in times of stress. However, if this fundamentally useful skill is bypassed, and children are instead pressured into obtaining straight A’s or left to deal with a sick family member without a foundation of emotional awareness, nothing but further stress is built. In response to internal distress, a child might turn to unhealthy ways of coping to experience some sense of solidity in the chaos. For example, they might become reliant on social media for validation, or turn to food as a way of gratification. The tool used to relieve this stress isn’t necessarily the problem. The problem lies beneath the surface, below the superficial stimulus of control.

So the question is, how do we cultivate this resilience now, in our everyday lives? For me this has been trial and error, and I know I’ll continue to learn new ways of managing stress as I grow my knowledge and my insight deepens. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, from the moment my twin sister was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa at the age of thirteen years old, my life was turned upside down. Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster ride of appointments, hospital visits and relapses. The severity of this mental illness has meant there are limited ways to support my sister, which is a lot harder to digest than if she had a physical illness which could be treated with a cast or a drug. I went through a long period where I felt powerless and victimised as I didn’t know how the universe could be so cruel to my family. On a side-note, the darkness doesn’t just go away, despite what action you take to control your thoughts and manage your stress. It can get easier yes, but it’s important to accept that your technicoloured spectrum of emotions are what makes you human. It’s how you manage them which is key.

At the age of sixteen years old, my mum tried to make me read (what I thought to be at the time) a airy-fairy-too-good-too-be-true book called ‘The Power of Now’ by Ekhart Tolle. You might have heard of it, I like to think of Tolle as the Beyonce of the spiritual red carpet (!). I remember the whole five minutes it took me to read the first two pages of this book. Honestly, I thought it was a load of bullsh**t. This is why I can empathise massively with anyone who struggles to be open to mindfulness jargon like ‘living in the present moment’. In this phase of my teenage life, where I was angry at the world, resenting anything that didn’t fit into what my fixed mindset deemed as ‘right’, I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I could in fact choose to think differently. Under the current circumstances, this was too much of a challenge. I was living at home, had a difficult relationship with my parents who I felt abandoned by, and identified myself as the ‘victim’ of their neglect. My thinking was dogmatic and irrational, and I was completely consumed by the idea that this was the way it would always be. I couldn’t see how this chain of events could possibly have any positive outcomes, let alone eventually provide me with a sense of inner clarity. 

It wasn’t until I was at university that I discovered my spiritual side. From the ages of sixteen to eighteen I had made some progress with my inner conflicts at a surface level. I’d studied Psychology A-Level therefore became very aware, and passionate, about ways to help people struggling with mental health issues. I started to actively search out for knowledge that I could use to empathize my sister’s situation. This was a conscious choice that was such an important step in my journey. When I got to university, I wasn’t particularly happy from the word go. I knew something wasn’t quite right, despite being surrounded by beautiful palm trees, living right by the beach, financially stable and studying art. I was living the perfect life, everyone thought, and for a long time I convinced myself of this too. Ironically, it’s almost as if the more ‘perfect’ my environment was, the more dynamic my internal suffering became. There were a few things going on in my head at this point. I was worried about my sister, who at this point wasn’t in the best of states in an in-patient unit; I missed my friends who I made in America the summer before; and I still resented my parents, for everything. Up till now I’d always pushed through this anxiety, being a high-achiever and by this point an avid support system for my sister. But it was as though when I was finally left to my own devices, with complete freedom to live how I chose, I knew something had to be done and it was up to me to fix it.

This wasn’t a straightforward path, but I was open-minded. In hindsight, yoga was the first introduction I had into this more spiritual way of thinking. I’d begun to form a stronger relationship with the mental as well as the physical discipline, after attending a yoga retreat in Morocco at the age of eighteen. The spiritual philosophies talked about in classes were planted in the back of my mind, little did I know I just had to water them. 

One day, whilst nursing a post-freshers hangover, I remembered the book that was given to me by my mum at the age of sixteen. I recalled my mum putting it on the bookshelf, after my stubborn dismissal, ‘just in case’ I was ever interested in reading it again. I swallowed my pride and asked my mum if she could send it to me.

‘The Power of Now’ is one of those books you can’t put down if you come across it at the right place, at the right time. If you’re dipping your toe into the water of spirituality, this book is a great starting point. It’s incredible how quickly your mindset can start to shift once you’re open to a new way of thinking, once you want to change. The book is accessible to everybody, as it articulates the notion of ‘presence’ as a way of handling the daily stresses of modern life. It does seem very idealistic, as how do you stay ‘present’ when you’ve got a family to feed, a dissertation to write or a job on the line? However, the answer lies in surrendering to the uncertainty, of everything except from change. The reality is, and I’ve said it before, that no-one knows what they’re doing, but we’re all doing the best we can. You could structure the most pristinely timetabled routine for every day of your life, but that only exacerbates the anxiety when life doesn’t go to plan. Your happiness may be conditional on what you can control but, as comforting as that sounds, it’s an unsustainable way of living. This fixed mindset creates a never ending cycle of ups and downs because one minute the universe is working in your favour, and the next it’s not. When you let your mind dictate your life in this way, it’s very difficult to widen your perspective to see how your life could be any different. But it can be different. Once you start to become aware of the fact that you can control your fixed thoughts, you can start to catch yourself when your thinking becomes dysfunctional, when you lose objectivity. You can train yourself to act as a witness of the hypothetical stories that keep you up at night about what ‘could’ happen or what ‘might’ go wrong. You may even begin to forgive yourself and others for past mistakes, as you acknowledge how the lessons they taught you got you to where you are today.

These changes don’t come overnight, and you won’t reap the benefits of mindfulness straight away. It took me some time to understand how thinking in this (what seemed very impractical and unproductive) way could benefit my life. I thought I would lose my ambition, work ethic and determination to achieve my goals. Needless to say that didn’t, and hasn’t, happened. It’s a simple philosophy to live by, but by surrendering to uncertainty and living in the present, you can build the ultimate resilience. It strengthens that part of your brain that craves spontaneity, seeks out new opportunities and discovers ways to enhance your knowledge. You become a lot more objective when resolving problems because you know that all you can use is the knowledge and experience you’ve got right now. The amount of mental energy saved from dwelling, worrying or getting anxious is instead transformed into thoughts about how to make your current situation better. Instead of living in the past or the future, you’re living in the now.

There are many resources you can use to activate this way of thinking. The more routines that you implement into your day to day life, the more growth you will hopefully encounter. That’s not to say that even now, having practised certain routines for years, I still have days and even weeks where I struggle with being able to seperate my thoughts from reality. In these times I make an extra special effort to dedicate time to my spiritual practices. With my dad going through chemotherapy, my sister struggling with her mental illness and COVID-19 causing unpredictability for the future, it’s a difficult time. But instead of going straight into my natural ‘doing’ mode, trying to distract myself by keeping busy, I’ve become more conscious of my daily routine. I’ve become more intentional in controlling what information I’m exposed to, as the external circumstances around me are completely out of my control. Regardless of what’s going on, you don’t have to watch the news all the time, engage in speculative conversations or follow uninspiring instagram accounts. I’ve taken the reins of what my inner world is influenced by with the intention to plant as many seeds of positive energy as I can, as opposed to letting the weeds of negativity strangle any glimpses of lightness in this situation.

One of the tools that helps me the most is meditation. I’ve trialled and errored a few apps over the years, as well as experimenting with non-guided meditation, but I finally set my heart on the teachings of the app ‘Calm’. At the moment, I do two ten-minute guided meditations a day. One meditation is the set ‘daily calm’ (based on a specific philosophical theme), and the other is one of the various seven-day courses that is uploaded onto the app. To make it easier to stick to this routine, I meditate at certain points of the day. These aren’t fixed times as such, but I’ve found positive habits integrate into your routine more effectively if you associate it with a specific time of day. Therefore I choose to meditate after I do yoga in the morning, and before dinner-time in the evening. These times work well for me as I’m not rigged up on caffeine, I don’t have a full-stomach, and before mealtimes is a good time to let go of any mental tension, as anxiety and digestion aren’t the best of friends. 

Just like anything, meditation is hard at first. You might procrastinate starting meditation because the thought of bringing your awareness to your restless thoughts scares you. Or you may have tried meditating but the changes are so subtle and gradual that, to you, nothing seems to be happening. This can be frustrating, especially if you thrive on visible progress or struggle with perfectionism. These factors make the meditation practices even more challenging, but in the same breath (pardon the pun), even more worthwhile. As you commit yourself to the daily practise, you’ll begin to understand that with your awareness, you can control your wandering mind. Consciously bringing your attention back to your breath when your mind gets distracted by thoughts grounds you back to the present moment, to what is alive right now. Over time you can start to relate this practice to when you’re anxious or stressed, as this simple but effective relaxation technique can be used anytime, anywhere. Being able to remain present and grounded in a world that can feel chaotic and disorderly is an invaluable skill that will serve you through whatever challenges you may face.

Yoga can be used as a moving meditation. It’s a physical practice which forces you to remain present as you focus on coordinating your movements with your breath. The aim of yoga is to enable you to quieten your mind and body so you can remain still for seated meditation. For me, getting into the habit of doing yoga before meditation has had a positive impact on my meditation practice. Finding parts of your routine that complement each other will again make the positive habits you are trying to incorporate into your life a lot easier to follow through with.

I’ve never been a big reader. I always had trouble following storylines and wasn’t really interested in non-fiction growing up. However, ‘The Power of Now’ opened up a whole new realm of potential knowledge that I was absolutely captivated by. I went on to read Tolle’s next book called ‘A New Earth’, which gives further insight as to how we can become more conscious as a human race. In true Law of Attraction style, once I dedicated myself to this journey, I started to manifest more and more relevant material. I ordered lots of books, one of my other favourites being ‘An Untethered Soul’ by Michael A.Singer. This one encourages you to think more about the relationship you have with your specific thoughts, feelings and emotions. I make a conscious effort to read every single day – whether it’s a page or a chapter, this is part of my routine. Ideally I like to read first thing in the morning as your mind is clear and ready to absorb information. However sometimes your circumstances might not allow for this, so finding time to read at any point of the day is just as productive. There is one book that I turn to as soon as my alarm goes off in the morning, and that is ‘Journey to the Heart’ by Melody Beattile. Here are short, written daily meditations for every single day of the year. Starting my day by reading a snippet of wisdom, which entails a valuable life lesson, has made a massive difference to my headspace from the first five minutes in which I wake up. The relatable anecdotes she includes make me feel like I’m not alone on this path, and constantly reminds me that I’m dedicated to this spiritual journey. Learning from other’s experiences, positive or negative, shows just how interconnected we all are. This alone should dampen any doubt we may have to share our experiences with others, because in a way, it is your duty to do so if we want to make a difference.

There have been stages of my journey so far where I’ve chosen to take a break from not only social media, but my smartphone all together. It’s been dependent on the circumstances of my life at any given time e.g. if I’ve had a technology based job or a family member needs close contact with me. But where I can, I do find deep satisfaction from the simplicity of the digital detox. It intensifies my feeling of presence and I feel connected with nature on a whole new level. In a world that currently is very invested in algorithms and the latest iphone, it’s immensely rewarding to take myself out of ‘the norm’, even just for a day.

Constrastingly, there are other parts of this journey where I thrive off the information that I can soak up online. I receive motivational emails from self-improvement websites like ‘The Daily Om’; I listen to inspirational podcasts like ‘Feel Better, Live More’ by Dr. Chattergee; I watch insightful YouTube videos by spiritual teachers like Echkart Tolle; and I love talking to like-minded people on social media who share similar interests and ambitions to me. Going through periods of time technology-free makes me appreciate all of these incredible resources even more, especially in the current lockdown. It is your choice whether you sit on your phone scrolling on instagram for hours, or whether you use your time online intentionally to serve your personal growth. 

This generation genuinely does have the world at our fingertips in terms of being able to access a never-ending stream of information and stimulation to keep us entertained. However, with this comes the personal responsibility to use this freedom wisely – whether this is through implementing a degree of control over your screen-time, or by taking the time to actively unfollow instagram accounts that don’t uplit you. Holding yourself accountable for how you choose to spend your time online is the first step. It’s easy to bypass the little things you can do that will positively impact on your ability to cope with challenging times. For me, identifying with the idea that i’m a ‘lifelong learner’ has been really useful. It means that whatever you listen to, watch, read or talk about is absorbed with the intention of gaining insight and knowledge. For me, even on the most unproductive of days, pursuing any one of these activities means I’ve learnt something, no matter how small.

Finally, I’d like to talk a little bit about writing. I’ve written a diary since the age of ten years old, which is kind of unusual I guess. It began as simply a way to jot down what I did at school that day, who had fallen out with who, and what I had for dinner (nothing exciting). As the years went on, naturally, my diary became more introspective. I’d write about how I was feeling, especially once my sister got ill, which I found to be a very cathartic way to process my emotions. I then began to do more research into the more personal growth-focused idea of journaling, which I see as very different than keeping a diary. Journalling is another trial and error process. I have lost count of how many techniques I have experimented with over the years, as there are SO many directions to go down. Here are some of my favourite daily journaling prompts:

  1. Gratitude – Listing three things you’re grateful for each day
  2. Questions – Finding self-reflection questions online to answer each day
  3. Novelties – Listing three unexpected things that happened that day
  4. Contributions – Listing three things you did to help others that day
  5. Self-value – Listing three things you’re proud of that day
  6. Affirmations – “I am …. (strong/ grateful/ enthusiastic/ etc…) 
  7. Purpose – How I made a difference today…
  8. Positive Points – 10 positive points for today…
  9. Values – The value I will focus on today…
  10. Intentions – “Today I intend to …. (be kind to my family/feel connected with nature/challenge myself in some way/ be a positive role-model/etc)”

Through periods where I’ve found it harder to motivate myself to stay positive I’ve also found it extremely useful to write weekly and monthly reflections, for example:

  1. Three things that I’m proud of this week/month…
  2. Three goals I have for next week/month…
  3. How do I want to feel when I achieve my goals this week/month?
  4. Three things that I challenged myself with this week/month…
  5. Three things that surprised me this week/month…
  6. Three people that I’m grateful for this week/month…

The prompts I use are very dependent on what I’m struggling with at the time, which involves a degree of self-awareness in order to be able to articulate this to yourself. Sometimes there might be tension in my relationships, therefore I find it useful to focus on cultivating gratitude for the people who have dedicated time to help me. Other times I may feel like I’m not achieving enough, therefore find it useful to set myself specific short-term goals to work towards. In periods when I’m caught up in the wraiths of imposter syndrome, it’s good for me to turn my attention towards things I’ve done that I’m proud of. So as you can see, there’s no ‘one size fits all’, and that’s what I find so refreshing about journaling. There’s no pressure because no-one is going to see what you’ve written. Your journal is your personal, private and customised timeline of self-discovery. For me, there is no better way to uncover repressed emotions and gain deep insights into your psyche as you strive to develop your personal growth. The more you water those seeds of awareness, the more objectively you will be able to deal with life’s challenges. If you get to know yourself on a level deeper than your interests and hobbies, you’ll get to know your emotional threshold and ways to keep the water from rising. If you dare to dive underneath the surface, this is a wonderful place to swim.

Writing pieces that are published online is therapeutic for me on a whole new level. Despite not intending for my posts to be viewed by hundreds, knowing that even one person is inspired by the workings of my brain is an empowering thought. This is something I never dreamed of being able to do, as before I would’ve been so anxious about whether I’d offend someone or say something ‘stupid’. However, strengthening your mental resilience, using whatever tools work for you, is a process which will change your whole outlook on how you perceive yourself. What I’ve gained from putting myself out there online hugely overpowers the self-deprecating knocks my mind tries to inflict upon me. This means I can brush off the worries and sooth any anxieties with a greater sense of ease, which leaves space for me to focus on what I want to share with the world. I’ve discovered that in order to make a difference to others, you first have to break down any battles you have with yourself. Think about it, like a boxer in the ring, how are you supposed to defend yourself against the sh**t life throws at you if you don’t train the right mental muscles to fight?

You deserve to be able to deal with whatever challenges come your way, no matter how big or small. You are the master of your own mind, despite how well it does of trying to convince you otherwise. Regain your control, and live your life as if you’ve got nothing to lose. The only person you are harming by holding back from your inner potential is yourself. Stay committed to the process of learning, growing and sharing your gifts. There is no-one quite like you, so take the time to strengthen the warrior within.

Aware by choice, resilient by design.

Knowing Your Worth

Personally, I’ve never been one for mental health labels. I think they can put an individual into a box and have negative knock-on effects if an identity is built around on having a certain condition. That’s not to say it isn’t useful for diagnosis, but in many cases I feel like it solidifies the unhealthy behaviour as something that can’t be changed. They can create a ‘this is who I am’ mindset. That being said, I’m an advocate for raising awareness and reducing the stigma around mental illness, and appreciate that in severe cases, labelling yourself as having a mental health condition is a fundamental part of recovery. I do see the benefits in using a label to identify harmful physical or psychological behaviours, which in turn can help you develop your personal growth. This has been the case for me over the past few years as I’ve noticed myself experiencing mental habits that signify that of someone who suffers with ‘Imposter Syndrome’, which has been useful for me when managing my own mental health.

If you’re not familiar with this term, Imposter Syndrome is defined as “a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”(1). A simple example is an employee who doesn’t feel like they deserve the promotion they’re given due to perceiving themselves as inadequate, or the independent child who doesn’t ask for help due to feeling embarrassed that it will reveal their shortcomings.

However, only more recently have I begun to identify how this links with my perception of Self-Worth, which can be defined as “the opinion you have about yourself and the value you place on yourself”(2). This is a concept that I’ve befriended over the past few months, triggered by some issues that cropped up whilst travelling.

Prior to this period of self-refection, I’ve always associated the idea of ‘worthiness’ with ego-driven desires which could only manifest as self-seeking narcissism. As a naturally quiet, introverted person, I couldn’t possibly see how I could be assertive or (god-forbid) confrontational to stand up for what I think is right. I’ve never been one to complain, or argue or question someone’s beliefs. I assumed that in order to be a ‘good person’ I simply had to put up with any obstacles that would get in my way of happiness and suppress my fundamental right to feel pleasure. Ironically, in my opinion, this innate tendency to please and ultimately strive to avoid judgement from others is more ego-driven than the alternative.

By seeking approval of others you are choosing to feed into the identity-role you have created for yourself in your mind – whether it be a hard-working employee, an exemplary student, a ‘perfect’ daughter, or a supportive sister. There are conditions within these roles that, subconsciously, an individual who lacks self-worth lives by. For me, this has manifested as overcompensation, in almost every aspect of my life. At school I wouldn’t step a foot out of line, putting 110% into every piece of work; at work I would struggle to request time-off due to fear of looking like a ‘slacker’; and as a sister I’ve sacrificed a lot of my own independence to create peace with a difficult situation. In almost every professional or personal relationship I tend to give more than I take, not expecting anything in return.

This trend of behaviour hit home after a conversation with a good friend on the phone the other day. My friend works a 9-5 job as a Graphic Designer, has a strong work ethic and loves what she does. However, she sets her boundaries. She knows what she’s getting paid to complete, and questions authority when she’s being over-tasked. She leaves work dot on 5pm and goes home to reset her mind for the next day at the office, seeing her job for what it is. For me, this epitomizes a healthy level of self-worth in the professional setting. There’s nothing selfish or lazy about this mindset. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – it’s objective, self-nurturing and rational. My friend is treating herself as she would expect anyone else to be treated, and is self-assured enough to know her limits. She’s making her work a priority by putting her own needs first, enabling her to complete tasks to the best of her ability.

So why do some of us struggle with this? Well, this is where I think Imposter Syndrome comes into play. This has become more apparent to me as I’ve entered the world of work and began to specialise. In my final year of university, I got an incredible job offer to manage the summer camp I’d been working at for the four previous summers, in Upstate New York. As a 21-year old Fine-art undergraduate, with no specialist training in the field of Positive Youth Development or Management, it’s safe to say that I felt out of my depth. My friends encouraged me to apply for the job as I ticked all the boxes, so I took a leap of faith.

Not for one minute during the lengthy application and interview process did I think I’d actually get the job. “The application and interview experience will be good” I said to myself, my family proposing the same. And that experience alone was immense. Applying for the job overseas, I completed two rigorous hour-long Skype interviews with a panel of all of the organisation’s board members, firing questions left, right and centre. The first interview required me to create a presentation of my ‘vision’ for the summer camp and how I propose to implement these ideas into practise. I created this based on my fundamental, inside knowledge of camp, as well as my passion for giving kids the best summer experience they could hope for. Integrating my interest in Mental Health, Yoga, and Mindfulness, I proposed a set of unique ideas and values. I could answer the questions in the interview well because I felt I had nothing to lose. I was authentic, objective, and enthusiastic; and knew that I gave the whole process my best shot. I got the job, and initially, I was absolutely over the moon. I couldn’t believe I’d been given this opportunity at such a young age, and was flattered that I’d been given the responsibility to manage the place that had been so much a part of my own personal growth over the years. I felt like I had to give back everything, and more. So I worked hard.

I got the job in February, and was due to fly out to The States at the beginning of May. Bearing in mind that I hadn’t even finished my degree yet, there’s no doubt that from the minute I got the job offer I spent 90% of my time thinking about the summer ahead. Interestingly, I wasn’t particularly anxious or stressed or worried about anything, on the surface. Subconsciously though, I think I was sh**ting myself. For me, this anxiety manifested externally through work. I planned and planned and planned. When I thought I couldn’t plan anymore, I thought of something else to plan. My contract hadn’t even started yet! Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every minute, and the problem may have been that I didn’t really see it as ‘work’. I used my creativity to find ways to bring more colour to camp, my initiative to reach out with people to collaborate with and ability to organise to make sure every last document was in order. I went over and beyond, stretching myself to the limit because that is what I’ve always done. I didn’t know any different. I assumed my work was a measure of my self-worth.

No-one questioned my efforts, because in the working world, this is a dream. Someone willing to do any extra work, not question the wage given, and always looking for ways to develop their skills. I’m not saying that those are parts of myself that I’m particularly ashamed of, as it has meant I’ve been able to do what I’ve done. However, they are parts of me that I can now bring a conscious awareness to and not see as fixed ways of being. Instead, I can see this as a state of mind, which has been conditioned throughout my life. I can make sense of why I behave the way I do, acknowledging biological and environmental factors; and I now believe that it is well within my power to change parts of this state of mind if I want to.

Although this sense of feeling like an ‘imposter’ can largely apply to the work setting, I think it can also have an impact on your social relationships. For example, I’ve always struggled with being open about my feelings, for many reasons, which has translated in me being ‘hard to read’. A big part of this comes from the fear that if I expose my vulnerabilities I will be seen as weak or too sensitive, which doesn’t live up to the ‘resilient trooper’ persona that I perceive myself to have built up.

What I’ve come to realise, again and again, is that being vulnerable has quite the opposite effect. It takes a level of maturity to say explicitly how you feel, which needs to be reinforced by a solid foundation of self-worth that you can always fall back onto. This way you will feel worthy of an opinion, worthy of your experiences, and worthy to project your unique view of the world onto others. Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It doesn’t mean you are ruled by your emotions, it means you are aware of them. Before you can express difficult emotions though, you have to cultivate that awareness, which for some is harder that it may seem. There’s an anagram I’ve come across by the Buddhist teacher, Micheal Stone, which is useful when learning to manage powerful emotions:

Stop (take a minute to reflect)

Aware (identify the emotion that’s arisen)

Investigate (question why you feel this way)

Non- identification (detach the emotion from your sense of self)

In the moment, this technique can help you identify your emotions as fleeting, and detach from feeling like they are part of who you are. Just because you feel angry, doesn’t make you an angry person. Just because you feel sad, doesn’t mean you’ll be sad forever. Likewise, just because you’ve made a mistake, that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s important not to use your temporary shortcomings or feelings as a measure of your self-worth. This sounds simple, but I think there’s a lot of shame attached to certain emotions, that we carry around with us everyday. By reminding ourselves of the impermanence of everything within us and around us, the less we’ll judge ourselves or others for how we feel or behave. Imagine the rippling effect this would have, not only on how you relate to yourself and others, but how others relate to themselves. By practising non-judgement and self-compassion, you are showing others around you that they can do the same.

Jordan Peterson finely articulates in his book ’12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos’ how society in general is becoming increasingly self-deprecating as people “shoulder intolerable burdens of self-disgust, self-contempt, shame and self-consciousness. Thus, instead of narcissistically inflating their own importance, they don’t value themselves at all.” Whilst individuals are unable to exemplify compassion towards themselves, he goes onto explain how “they don’t believe other people should suffer, and will work diligently and altruistically to help them alleviate it” (3).

When putting this into the context of mental illness, it makes a lot of sense. As we devalue our own self-worth, by putting others on a pedestal (e.g. on social media) and see our mistakes as failures, the rise of mental illness becomes inevitable. From Eating Disorders to Generalised Anxiety Disorder, society is suffering. Generations to come will too unless we address the underlying issues that, in my opinion, has a lot to do with a on going sense of not feeling ‘good enough’ just to be yourself in a life that’s full of uncertainty. If you don’t value your own needs and desires, this uncertainty will swallow you up.

It’s only now that I realise that, unless you physically can’t do so, you’ve got to stand up for what you deserve – whether this be time, money or space. People will walk all over you unless you speak up and take accountability for your own basic needs. You may feel like, even subconsciously, that you don’t deserve what you’ve been given. I didn’t believe that I could have possibly got the job as Camp Manager because I was good enough the way I was, having achieved everything I had and working as hard as I did up till that point. I had to do more and more, even during the summer and beyond, until I felt satisfied that I’d done enough to justify my position. I didn’t see it as just a job, I saw it as a validation of my worth, and it had to be earned. But, as you may have guessed with this mindset, nothing is ever enough.

Nothing is ever enough until you step back and treat yourself as a whole person, who has been through a lot no matter what your upbringing was like, how educated you are or how ‘successful’ you are in your career. You are a person made up of atoms that are saturated with experiences which have led you to where you are today. There is a reason why you are given the opportunities you have been given, and absolutely no reason why you should ever doubt your worthiness of fulfilling a certain role or opportunity.

In reality, no-one in this life knows what they’re doing. We’re all born as a blank slate, ready to absorb the world as we know it. Some of us are lucky enough to fall into privileged families where our basic needs get met, education is readily available, and we have potential to grow. There are many others who aren’t so lucky. When we look at life like this, everything becomes clearer. Rather than doubting one’s own abilities or accomplishments, we should be grateful. Showing gratitude for the opportunities that we’ve got right now, convincing ourselves that we are enough and will always be enough. Consequently, this will begin to shift the uncertainties and doubt into creativity and excitement for what could be around the corner. There is no-one in this world who has lived through what you’ve lived through, faced the challenges that you’ve conquered or made the decisions that you’ve made at any given time. You’ve been granted the freedom to learn from your mistakes and develop as a person socially, emotionally, professionally, and mentally. Use that freedom wisely.

However, even once you realise this, that’s not to say life gets easier straight away. Like anything worth accomplishing, you’ve got to put the effort in (but not too much, that would be counterproductive 😉). When your whole personality is shaped around altruistic behaviours, unconditional giving, being easy going and having the inability to ‘say no’, it quickly creates a lot of conflict in your mind as to how to deal with certain situations. Whereas before you justified your decisions with the line “well, that’s just the way I am”, now you realise that you are worth so much more than you could ever have imagined. You actually believe you have the capacity inside of you to change how you present yourself to the world. What a liberating feeling! This is when you’ve got to cut yourself some slack and start treating yourself as you’d treat a friend. That’s easier said than done, especially when all you want to do is make everyone else happy. Understanding that you can’t sustainably make other people happy until you cultivate that happiness within yourself is the first step. Over time, affirming that belief to yourself every single day will gradually retune that wire in your brain.

As your self-worth increases you begin to see all the ways that you have previously been taken advantage of, let your feelings slide or allowed someone else to take the credit for something you’ve worked hard for. And that’s not to say you feel victimized, but you just become aware of how a subconscious need to please has been compensating for your own lack of self-worth for far too long. You can even use this awareness to anticipate situations where you might feel like an ‘imposter’ in the future. This way, you are one step ahead of your thoughts. For a long time you haven’t valued yourself, your own life experience and personal achievements the way you have valued others, which has transpired into that fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Needless to say this is irrational, and it’s time to change.

The funny thing is, when has this exposure ever taken place to the extent that you envisioned in your mind? Let’s be real. If you’re anything like me, I always picture the worst. I picture myself being humiliated, or freezing up when presenting something, or being awkward in social situations. And yeah, sometimes these things happen, to EVERYBODY. It’s not just you, despite how you feel inside. When I look back on what I’ve achieved, I can honestly say that I’ve surprised myself. Situations where I thought I would ‘fail’, I have exceeded my expectations; times where I thought I would be judged, I have been praised; and people I thought I had let down, have shown nothing other than gratitude. I can look back on mistakes that I have made with compassion for the person I was at the time, having been through what I had. Once you start to reflect on your life like this, anticipating that you will keep on learning not ‘failing’, you will begin to attract the abundance you deserve. Every action you take has a domino effect, and every mistake you make has a lesson.

At the end of the day, you are your own worst critic. The reality is, that no-one cares that much about you to analyse your every move, and if they do, then you should pity them. No-one in the world knows you as well as you do, therefore cannot judge how you should behave, what you should say, or the steps you need to take to move forward. They haven’t lived your life. As soon as you start living by your own values, whatever they may be (I recommend taking some time to reflect on your ‘Top 5’), you will begin to attract circumstances, situations and relationships which reward your efforts. You will begin to notice that as you grow your own self-worth, people will see more value in you; as you recognise your own achievements, people will give you more credit for the things you’ve done; and as you believe that you can achieve anything in life, you begin to inspire others to believe the same about themselves.

References
  1. Dalla-Camina, M. (2018). The Reality of Imposter Syndrome. Retrieved from Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/real-women/201809/the-reality-imposter-syndrome
  2. Know, L. T. (2018). Definitions. Retrieved from Your Dictionary: https://www.yourdictionary.com/self-worth
  3. Peterson, J. (2018). 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Canada: Penguin Random House UK.

Life as an Identical Twin

Firstly, I would like to stress how much I love my twin sister, Katy. She is an inspirational human being, who has been through hell and back to get to where she is today. I’m grateful she’s alive, and to this day is the older (by 15 minutes) sister that I’ve always looked up to. For those of you who know us, you’ll know that we can get through anything. For those of you who don’t, I’m about to tell you a story that may enlighten you about the ups and downs of being a twin. If you relate to the issues which I discuss in any way, I encourage you to reach out and get professional support. Being a twin, especially if one suffers with a severe mental illness, is hard. But you don’t have to do it alone.

I don’t think anyone living as an identical twin would claim it’s a walk in the park. However, many people insist that we should count ourselves ‘lucky’ for having a ready-made best playmate, best friend, and companion through hard times. At surface level, this is very true. Being an identical twin creates a bond with another human being that is simply unattainable through any other relationship or friendship, no matter how long you spend getting to know that person. It forms a strong sense of security to know that there is someone else in the world that will always understand and be there for you, even when others may not. From the get-go you are walking through this life together, experiencing the world in unison – until you realise that this unshakeable bond may not be all that it seems.

I’d like to start by talking a little bit about the perks of being a twin, because I do truly believe that every identical twin is blessed to have someone to count on no matter what. Katy and I were inseparable as children. We were dressed the same up until the age of about 11 years old, in the same class up to around Year 5, and shared all the same friends. When one of us quit swimming lessons, the other quit swimming lessons. When one of us started piano lessons, the other started piano lessons. We were a unit. Two peas in a pod. The dependency we had on each other was innate in our psyche, and we couldn’t bear to be apart. It helped that we inevitably had a lot of the same interests, and a similar work ethic, which meant our lifestyles were quite naturally in sync. We enjoyed the same food, were drawn to the same types of people, and got the same grades at school. Despite this, I’d like to note that we had fundamental personality differences that set us apart from an early age. Katy was always the leader, more assertive, competitive and generally in a position of control. On the other hand, I was much more sensitive, gentle, passive and ready to compromise. This worked in our relationship, we balanced each other out like yin and yang. Interestingly, we’re also ‘mirror twins’ which means some things are “opposite”. Katy is right-handed, I’m left-handed; our teeth fell out a week apart on opposite sides; and when we are both looking in the mirror, even our parents can’t tell us apart! So, our complementary personality differences make a lot of sense.

We never saw the negative side of being a twin up until the age of about 13 years old (so Year 7/8 at school). Why would we have? We had a happy, healthy, active childhood full of laughter, joy and fun. But then it all started to change. I remember one quite significant occasion where we both had come back to school after taking a clarinet exam elsewhere. It was lunch-time and Katy and I were excited to see our friends. We roamed around the school grounds, saw our friends from afar and made our way over. However, as our friends saw us approaching, they quickly turned and walked away from us. We looked at each other, confused, wondering why our friends were being so hostile. We were naïve to the fact that our friends might be jealous of our relationship, hence now actively leaving us out of their social circle. We’d be fine after all, there were two of us. Being the positive, non-confrontational youths that we were, we didn’t react with anger. “Well, at least we have each other” we thought, and that was that. We hung out alone, then after a while we made some new friends, like it was no big deal. But should it have been?

This situation, I think we would have managed, if a certain illness didn’t enter our lives and turn both of our world’s upside down. At the age of 13 years-old Katy developed Anorexia Nervosa, a serious eating disorder that she battles with today, 8 years later. I won’t go fully into the Katy’s journey with Anorexia, as that’s her story, but I will explain the effects this disease has had on our relationship. Our family does have a genetic predisposition to mental illness, therefore under certain dispositional or environmental conditions, we are vulnerable to being triggered. At this sensitive age, Katy wanted to be different. She needed control. For the first year of her illness I seemed to be ignorant to the changes in attitude towards food and exercise that Katy was showing. This runs in line with the year that my mum decided to train to be a full-time teacher, therefore was out of the house from 8am-6pm. Unbeknown to me at the time, Katy’s manifesting illness pounced on this opportunity of lack of supervision. Whereas many 13-year old may have rebelliously started smoking or hanging out with boys, Katy suggested we watch shows like ‘Supersize vs. Superskinny’ after school and insisted we cooked ‘healthy’ dinners – her most famous one being cabbage lasagne (something we laugh a lot about today!). The behaviour intensified at school, when she’d make excuses not to eat and walked the long way round to get to classes. The weight loss began. Only when a close family member noticed the rapid change in Katy’s appearance were my parents ready to admit a cause for concern. Secrecy and manipulation are core traits of Anorexia Nervosa, therefore we were all unsurprisingly fooled by the game the illness was playing. But as my sister’s health deteriorated and she couldn’t hide it anymore, action started to be taken.

Post-diagnosis, Katy stayed at home. She was put on a meal-plan, completed all her school-work remotely and her activity was closely monitored by my mum (who at this point gave up her teaching career). They spent nearly every minute of the day together – go on outings, baking and gardening when Katy wasn’t studying. My mum would do anything to keep Katy distracted, and it worked, for a while. The thing about Anorexia though, is that it can manipulate any meal-plan, exercise routine or person to meet its own self-satisfying needs. Being the person closest in the world to Katy, I was a very easy target. There were periods of this time where Katy would attend school, but it wouldn’t be an easy ride, and being a twin was the perfect tool to lean on. Led astray from new-found friends due to Katy’s anxiety around eating, no longer being able to walk to school with my friends, and being subjected to the lunch-box additions that would ‘magically appear’ in my bag, I was spellbound into manipulation. When Katy was going to school, I was to be with her. When she wasn’t at school, I’m not going to lie, I was glad to get away from her.

It was only a matter of time until Katy was admitted to her first psychiatric unit, one of many which she had to live in for the next seven years. The closest was a 40- minute drive from home, and the furthest away was a 4-hour drive from home. Before the age of 17, my little sister and I used to go and visit Katy almost everyday after school with one of my parents. When I learnt to drive, I would drive to see Katy a few times a week after college, and every weekend. Understandably, my social life at school and throughout college was pretty non-existent due to the circumstances, and so the resentments began.

I went through three emotional stages with Katy’s illness: Confusion (age 13-14 years), Anger (15-17 years) and Empathy (18-21 years). Anger was the stage in which I feel most sympathy for my younger self, as I couldn’t make sense of what was happening to my sister, or figure out how I could support her. I didn’t recognise my best friend anymore. All I could see was that she was taking up all the attention from my parents and manipulating me in order to make her eating disorder easier to manage. The time I spent with her felt forced, and there was a lot of tension in our relationship (hence why we don’t have many photos together during this time). Her illness took away my sense of freedom, but despite how much I ‘hated’ her, all I wanted was our bond back.

It was at college when I transitioned from ‘hating’ Katy, to resenting my parents. I began to study Psychology A-level, and consequently became very well-informed about the causes, symptoms and treatments of mental illness. I wrote an EPQ (extended project qualification) about how Art Therapy could be beneficial to the treatment of Eating Disorders, and this is when my mindset switched. Instead of pushing Katy away, I began to try and understand why this may have happened. Together we analysed our differences, our upbringing and discussed the nature/nurture debate. We started to become closer, and I could begin to support her through her treatment from a place of empathy. At this point I wasn’t forced to help her. It was my choice.

So I’d turned a new leaf, it seemed. But no matter how much I tried to shake it off, my resentment towards my parents wouldn’t budge. In hindsight, they did the best they could in the situation, and no parent deserves to go through what they went through with Katy’s illness. In fact, if I was going to regret anything in life, it would be the attitude that I held towards them during that period of my life, as it affected every decision I made. At 16 I decided to attend a Sixth Form College a 40-minute drive from home, despite the fact we have a perfectly good Sixth Form down the road. My theory was that if I chose to get as far away from home as possible, I would feel less neglected by my parents. This trend carried on into how I chose to spend my summers. After Sixth Form, I got a job at a summer camp in Upstate New York through Camp America. I went on to work at this summer camp (which I adore) for the next four summers. Having made the decision to go to University post A-levels, I chose to go, as you may have guessed, the “furthest away from home”. And I made this reason loud and clear. It’s like I wanted my parents to feel guilty. As they continued to visit Katy across the country every weekend, they rarely came down to Falmouth to see me at university. “You made that choice” they said, rightfully, but I was still angry. It was a ‘chicken and egg’ situation – I wouldn’t phone them, so they wouldn’t phone me; I wouldn’t open up to them, so they didn’t ask me how I was feeling; I wouldn’t come home regularly, so they thought I didn’t want to see them.

It’s only now, after all of these years, that I can make sense of this chain of events. The affection I craved the most wasn’t available to me, because I wasn’t the one who visibly ‘needed’ it. I forgive my parents for how their actions made me feel, and I forgive myself for acting the way I did. Looking back, the experiences this resentment led me to have are ones that I’m unfathomably grateful for.

When we were 18, and our relationship was getting tighter and tighter, Katy and I decided to take a 10-day trip to Morocco. Aside from us really wanting to go on a yoga retreat together, it was an incentive for Katy to get some leave from hospital. I’d started really supporting Katy from a far, whether I was in America or at University, and was ready to take on the (huge) responsibility of taking her on holiday. It was a huge risk, as she just about made it to the weight in which she was granted leave, but one we were willing to take. And we had a great trip, overall. We learnt a lot about ourselves through yoga, and it really kick-started our dream to be yoga teachers. But, it was also the first major wake-up call to the co-dependency that began to manifest into our relationship, and one that would continue until this day. Katy relied on me to be a good role model with food and exercise and, in a way, she was lucky to have me. However, it went to the extreme. She would imitate my intake to the mouthful and my activity to the step, and it was suffocating. I described it as having a ‘shadow’, that as a 18-year old who greatly desired my own independence, I struggled to deal with.

The anxiety that Anorexia Nervosa cultivates for the person suffering is extremely difficult to watch. It produces a reaction in the individual that we, as a family, often referred to as being in a ‘zone’ – overwhelmed by irrational thought which manifests into a kind of panic attack. When Katy is in a ‘zone’, there’s only two options: push, or pull back. To ‘push’ means an element of ‘tough love’, supporting Katy through whatever anxiety she’s having around food or exercise, but not giving into her eating disorder. To ‘pull back’ has become more evident as the years have went on, as after the age of 18 it’s very difficult to tell the person suffering with an Eating Disorder to do anything if they’re not “under section”. I always found myself in a position of ‘pulling back’. I gave into her need to imitate my every move, as this was the only way it seemed I could support her. When she was with me it looked like she was getting better, physically, which translated to everyone else as her getting better mentally. I took on more and more responsibility, until I went to America for a 4th summer, and she was left to her own devices.

During this time, Katy got herself into an amazing place physically. As a result, when I got home, I agreed to go travelling with her. I cannot describe how hard she worked for this. Her journey of recovery up to this point was incredible. She’d taken on a philosophy of ‘unrestricted eating’, moved into a student flat in Brighton and got herself to a healthy weight. Having witnessed this from a far, I was so proud of her and excited for her to get back the life she deserves. We jetted off to India in the October of 2019 and started began our 3-month Yoga Teacher training in the Yoga Institute of Mumbai.

Travelling taught us a lot about our relationship. It revealed subconscious feelings that I had towards Katy that I’d repressed or always bottled up until this point. I’ll start with the negative, because there are so many positives about this trip that I’d like to end on.

The Ashram in Mumbai was very triggering for Katy. Conversations about weight, fasting and the feeling of being institutionalised caused her anxiety to skyrocket and made it very difficult to concentrate on the course. Cut a long story short, we decided to leave, and resume a shorter one-month Yoga Teacher Training course in Goa. This initial month of travelling already marked some red flags. Katy was nowhere near ready mentally to deal with choices around food and exercise when she was experiencing this level of anxiety, so I had to make a decision. I decided that I would do whatever it took to make this trip successful, and not let Katy’s eating disorder get in the way of her once-in-a-lifetime travelling experience. Therefore, I would grin and bear her co-dependency for the duration of the trip. This wasn’t an issue, I’d done it before and was prepared to do it again.

When it became an issue was when we started getting, what I like to call, ‘the comments’. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of the time we would get remarks like “same, same”, or unsubtle stares from passers by because we looked “exactly the same”. However, counterbalanced with these, we would also receive comments like “why is she thin and you’re fat”, “you’re the chubbier twin” or “you must be older because you’re bigger”. For me, these were tremendously difficult to deal with. It wasn’t even the insensitivity of these comments that got to me the most, but the scrutiny of being subject to the analysis of my appearance. Having always been someone who does much better behind the scenes, I struggled with the attention. It made me feel anxious, self-conscious and degraded.

So you know what was going on in the back of my mind, and can probably appreciate it was a difficult situation. But what you’ll be glad to hear is that, despite the underlying issues, we had the trip of a lifetime. We created memories that would not have been the same if we weren’t together e.g a overnight camel safari in the desert, wild hostel nights out in Mumbai, requesting to play the new Harry Styles album in every bar we went to, and climbing mountains in Sri Lanka at 2am in the morning. We spent so much time together that the two of us often didn’t need to communicate, we knew what the other was thinking. We’d finish each other’s sentences, or say things at exactly the same time, which was hugely amusing for anyone listening. Having spent eight years largely apart, it was a time of our lives in which we could simply enjoy each other’s company, without any expectations or pressures. And the best part was that we spent every moment in a state of presence. As we decided not to take our smartphones travelling, there were no distractions to what we were experiencing. It was surreal, but absolutely eye-opening.

We made it through the trip, which was cut three months short due to the deterioration of our dad’s health and the COVID-19 pandemic. And that leads us to the present. I’d love for it to be a happy ending, but this isn’t a Pollyanna kind of story. If you’ve made it this far, you can see that Katy’s and my relationship is bittersweet, and throwing an Eating Disorder in the mix makes everything ten times harder. We love each other to pieces, and under normal circumstances, we’d respect each other’s individuality and go our separate ways at this point in our lives. It makes it very difficult when one person wants that, but the other doesn’t due to no fault of her own. So we have to compromise. As of this moment, Katy is struggling. Anorexia Nervosa is an ongoing battle and I hold my hands up to anyone whose fighting the conflicts in their head, especially in this time of self-isolation. The dependency is something that she needs for the meantime, until outside help is available. Bringing a conscious awareness to this dependency is my way of justifying this relationship for the time being. I know it’s unhealthy, as I’ve uncovered in my own personal therapy sessions (which I hugely recommend if you’re struggling with similar issues). It’s not ideal, but it’s the only way out. If I was in the same situation, I know she would do the same for me. And this is what sums up being a twin. You are there for each other, no matter what.

I’m not sure if I’ve made all the right decisions over the years, but who can really judge whats ‘right’ under these unique circumstances? What I have done is followed my heart. I’ve tried to let go of any resentment, heal my own wounds and support my loved ones the best I can. There is a quote, which I had tattooed on my arm that hugely inspires me in these difficult times, and it’s “this too shall pass”. Through the good times, and the bad times, always remember that the only permanent thing is change. The universe has gifted you with challenges, and my current challenge is being a twin who craves her independence, yet wants to do everything she can to support her sister. Don’t underestimate the power you have to grow from a situation, however hard it may be. You are a sum of your own unique experiences, and whether you’re a twin or not, there is no-one who knows yourself better than you do. Follow your heart, and inspire others to follow theirs. Remember, nothing in this world lasts forever.

I would like to end with a nugget of advice for parents, siblings, friends, teachers, acquaintances or passers by of identical twins. Treat each twin as an individual. Make an effort to try and tell them apart. ASK them a personality trait or physical characteristic they should look out for, and don’t walk on eggshells about it. Twins often have a sense of humour about certain differences and really don’t mind talking about them. In fact, Katy and I love talking about what makes us different, but many people don’t often ask. Try not to stare at twins in the street, second glancing them like they’re some sort of alien species. Twins are fascinating, yes, but they are also human. This sounds easier than it sometimes is, as I’m well aware. As identical twins are often so painstakingly similar, it is so easy to treat them as one, as a spectacle, or an object of comparison. When travelling we often got referred to as “the twins” or, even if only one of gave our opinion about something, people would assume we both thought it. People were surprised to hear that actually we’ve had very different life experiences, which explain some of the differences between us. I think it becomes particularly frustrating as you get older and want to grow as unique individuals, but you can’t control the associations and assumptions that people have of twins. At the end of the day, it comes down to being mindful. Mindful of how we communicate with others and the impact your words may have, positive or negative. You have more power than you think to make a difference to other people’s lives, so live your life with full awareness.

Be kind, be conscious, be free.

Out of sight, Out of mind.

A poem I wrote in Sri Lanka, having not had a smartphone for four months whilst travelling:

23rd February 2020: Half Empty Cup
No phones, no distractions,
stuck with your own thoughts;
endless time on your hands,
a stimulation drought.
Living life on the scroll,
the like and the swipe;
the constant need for validation,
and a ‘perfect’ happy life.
When people don’t see,
what you’re doing day to day;
it creates a kind of peace,
that will blow your mind away.
You’ll become more grounded in yourself,
aware of insecurities you’ve covered up;
relying on your own inner strength,
to fill up your half empty cup.

Does the idea of not having your phone for four months scare you? Or does it make you feel relieved? For me, the idea of this definitely stimulated mixed emotions. After a summer where my job required me to be constantly online, answering emails, updating the organisation’s social media, and generally getting caught up in the wrath of everyday modern life stresses, I felt like I needed a break. I noticed how my brain was constantly overloaded with external stimuli that wasn’t enhancing my life in any way. The thought of going travelling and being free from social media, constant notifications and the pressures of always having to be ‘on my game’ in terms of job-hunting post-graduation took a massive weight off my shoulders. In the same breath, I felt immensely guilty at the thought of not being able to communicate efficiently with friends and family without a smartphone, and had a (irrational) fear that my friends would think I didn’t care about them if I actively removed myself from society’s circle of connection. Fortunately, Katy was on the same wavelength as me; so we made a plan:

1) We spent a good month catching up our friends and letting them know our travel plans so they knew roughly what we were doing and when.

2) Then we made a book of addresses so we could send our family and friends letters (which I’ll talk about in a bit).

3) Next we bought a brick phone for £10 from Tesco (so our mum could keep in contact!), and set up a joint bank account as we wouldn’t have access to mobile banking to transfer money to each other.

4) After that we bought ACTUAL maps and spent a long time planning, booking and printing itineraries, tickets, accommodation etc. It was a lot of work and organisation, but well worth it!

5) Finally, we left the time-quenching, addictive devices in the safe hands of our dad, who funnily enough would look at our transactions & comment on how little we were spending (the 80p beers & £1.50 meals in India treated us well!).

And we were FREE! I can’t explain the feeling when we walked through the airport without our phones in our pockets, or the look on the security workers face’s when we said we “didn’t have a phone” in our hand luggage. I’m not going to lie, it took a while to get used to. Not reaching in your pocket whilst your sitting in an airport waiting to board the plane, listening to music on a 10-hour bus journey, or face-timing your mum to ask her how to work the washing machine in a hostel. It made us grow up, a lot!

For the first time in our adult lives we couldn’t use google maps to get from A to B, and actually had to communicate with other human beings (crazy, right) for directions. We couldn’t look up places to eat or hostels to stay in, so spent hours talking to other backpackers, from all over the world, for recommendations and advice. The time we would’ve spent stressing about the wifi not working, updating our social media, or messaging friends, we spent looking out windows, talking to tuk-tuk drivers and absorbing every little bit of culture we could. Every moment was full of presence, of actual, real life.

As you can imagine, there was another side of this which was extremely difficult at times. If you’re prone to over-think and analyse things, even the mere thought of being left with your own thoughts 24/7 can be extremely daunting. However, in the wise words of Sophocles, “There is no success without hardship”. I grabbed the opportunity to face up to emotions that I’d bottled up for years, fears I’d repressed and dreams I might’ve otherwise disregarded. To make sense of all the ‘jumble’ in my head, I wrote poem after poem after poem. I read books to my heart’s content, and my concentration improved drastically. I allowed myself to daydream and wonder and reflect, and learnt so much more about myself than I ever had done in any job, training course or my degree. I wasn’t always ‘doing’, but instead I gave myself the chance just to ‘be’.

There’s something fulfilling about taking the time to get to know yourself, aside from anyone else’s expectations or pressures society puts on you. There’s something special about taking some time out of your life to be a ‘nobody’, because ironically, you become so much more of a human being than you may have felt when you were performing a certain role in a job, or validating yourself online. I discovered that no matter what happens in my life, I’ve got the tools inside of me to get through anything. There were times when we were travelling when I had to let my instincts take the driver’s seat, because sometimes you’re mind can complicate things. I had to trust that I have the power within my to make smart decisions without over-analysing, googling or relying on reassurances from others. I needed to be distanced from ‘reality’ to gain that self-confidence and awareness of just how much wisdom is innate in what I’ve experienced in my life so far.

This experience also gave me a lot of insight into my social circle, who I could rely on and who I could not. I sent letters to a lot of my friends and family, and from the people who actively replied or intended to reply (sometimes letters got lost in the Indian snail mail), I became aware of how much more significant sending a letter is as oppose to a message or even email. Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. How many people do you have small talk with on a daily/weekly basis online, and feel like that’s enough to fulfil your relationship?
  2. How many people would you be able to count on to reply to a letter you sent them, with the intensity of sharing worries/plans for the future/support?

The answer to these questions will be different for everyone, and may have changed (for the better) due to the current COVID-19 situation with people relying on their support system more than ever. For me, the trip made me so much more aware of those handful of people I can truly count on to be there for me when I need them. It made me realise that the relationships I find myself in may not be the ones I deserve, or are good for me, as I often give more than I take. The people who can take the time to be open, honest and offer the support you need are the people who you should never let go of in your life. Today’s digital world induces superficiality, ‘fake’ friends and competition. When you take yourself out of that bubble, your reality becomes so much clearer.

There’s something very authentic and real about sending a letter that means so much to the person giving and receiving. As oppose to keeping in daily contact with our loved ones on a surface level, through replies on instagram stories, snapchats or ‘bant’ in the family group chat; through letters Katy & I gave them such in depth accounts of not only what we were doing, but how we were feeling and what we’d learnt. In response they did the same, and it was even more exciting to hear about everything that was going on in their lives because of the distance between us. Ironically, the harder it was to communicate, the more our relationships improved – a revelation. My message is that ‘less is more’. The less you have, the more you appreciate. The less you care what other’s think, the less seriously you take yourself. The less you expect, the more you gain.

It’s interesting to apply these lessons to the current social climate. Although, since I’ve been home, I feel like everything has went back to ‘normal’ in terms of my use of my phone, social media, and connecting online, I have to factor in how self-isolation inevitably has had a massive part to play. Despite this, even though I ideally would want to be using my phone less, I do feel like there has been a huge shift in awareness that has come from being without my phone for a long period of time. As oppose to unconsciously absorbing the news of others on social media, passively scrolling, and reacting as if on automatic, I’m much more aware of the information I’m exposed to online. In turn I can notice how that may consequently effect my mood, energy levels, concentration and sleep. For example, I know that if I’ve used my phone a lot that day, I will be very easily distracted and not be able to concentrate as well when reading/writing later on.

The consequences of this virus are bittersweet. We can argue that it’s brought us together as a society, and technology has been an incredible source of connection in terms of videochats, online yoga/workouts, celebrities sharing live music etc – even my grandma has Zoom! Under these circumstances it would be pretty much impossible to ditch your smartphone and not feel lonely, especially if you live alone. However, even during these times where we rely on technology so much, it is completely within our means to bring a level of intention to our device usage. We can distance ourselves when we start to feel anxious or overwhelmed by the news or ways other people on your news feed are spending their time. Hide your phone, turn off the news and go outside if you can.

It’s amazing how accurate the statement ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is. From first-hand experience I know that the world didn’t fall down when I abandoned my phone, my friends were still there for me when I got home, and I felt SO much more satisfied with how I spent my time. I felt more grounded in myself and less subjected to external pressures when I was travelling, and when I got home. It’s had a knock-on effect which I can only thank myself for, because it honestly was one of the best experiences I’ve ever subjected myself to. Challenge yourself to one day, one hour, or one TV programme where your phone isn’t by your side. Decide that you’re not going to eat with the news on, have a specific time to scroll, or block notifications so they don’t disturb your day until you choose to view them. Cultivate good habits and be mindful. There’s enough going on in this world that’s out of our control to let technology take you over.

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