Here we go again – new year, new blog format.
At the end of 2019 I had started to rethink how I wanted to write my reflective blogs, as monthly reviews had stopped feeling like the right fit. It began to feel a little repetitive and I would beat myself up if I didn’t have much to say. This year, I decided, I would write quarterly round ups instead to give myself a little more space and to be able to give each month a lighter touch. Given one of my aims for 2020 was to try to be a little bit more steady and gentle with myself, it felt like a better plan.
Of course, when I decided to make this shift, I hadn’t reckoned for quite so much changing quite so rapidly by the time the first instalment came together, but let’s see how this goes.
Here’s how I’ve been doing so far in the slow yet tumultuous shift from winter into spring.
The beginning of the year already feels a little foggy in my memory, like scenes from an entirely different world. After a couple of restful days sleeping off new year’s eve, my 2020 began in earnest with a trip to Wales to visit my grandparents and bid farewell to their home, which sold later that month.
The slow loosening of ties to that particular landmark came with a multitude of emotions; it was one of the last concrete links I had to my life with my mum, so I felt grief stricken to lose it – it meant losing another piece of her when so much is lost already.
My heart felt so heavy, visiting my grandparents separately – now in different care homes because of their vastly different needs. I felt relieved to know they are now receiving what they each need to have the best quality of life but at the same time it all feels a little like we’re preparing for more endings. One of the markers of my sense of normality, an anchor of my grief for my mum, shifted with that visit. It was a strange start to an uncomfortable year but I’m glad I got to take the time to honour it all.
The new year brought with it a new job – in the first week of January I joined the youth engagement team at YoungMinds on a three month contract, providing short term support and project management for their Activist programme. It has been such a joy working with the team and the incredible young people the charity supports – I definitely feel like I landed on my feet. Around the edges, I also continued to deliver Mental Health UK’s new resilience programme for young people at a school just north of London. It has been a real privilege to focus all my work time and energy on projects I’m so passionate about over the last few months.
January also saw me return to the House of Illustration, for a six week course “exploring drawing”. As I’m sure you can imagine – if you’ve read my blog before, at least – I loved it. We looked at the fundamentals of drawing – from line, tone and colour theory to drawing the figure. I loved trying out different techniques and materials through January and February, picking up new tricks to develop my approach to illustration. I still have so much left to learn but it was a brilliant set of new building blocks to start from.
On a similar theme, January was the first time I saw my illustrations in print and it was such a special moment. Three of my drawings were published in the Dear Damsels 2020 annual, inspired by the story “Deadhead”. I would love the chance to do more work like this as the year goes on.
The ever present background hum of my health continued on as well, as I’ve tried to navigate my way into a new routine. In retrospect, I’m glad I packed so much into such a brief window – whilst I still could – but at the time taking on a lot in one short space was quite overwhelming for my body. Ever since my relapse I feel like I’ve existed in a constant state of learning and unlearning how to cope with my conditions.
The beginning of the year hasn’t been the smoothest for my body but I have made some positive changes. From creating more structure in my week which allows me to manage my energy levels better, making time for the things I enjoy so that I don’t feel like I only live to be well enough to work and even making tough choices about my care. After over two years with my old osteopath, I shifted gears in January and decided to move to a new pracitioner closer to home. It was another big change during a month of upheaval but having more flexibility, less travel time and finding someone who caters every session to my needs has made it worth the shift. I want my life to work with my disability but not to be dominated by it and this was an important step towards that vision.
One of the great highlights of my February was spending Saturday mornings with Write Like a Grrrl, for their third creative writing course. I’ve struggled to focus on writing this year so far, with so much energy going into work and managing my health, so it was comforting to have dedicated time and space to think and talk about writing each week.
We looked at all sorts, from writing humour, to self care for writers and I received invaluable feedback on the first two chapters of my second draft. As always, I would thoroughly recommend signing up to a course and finding your grrrl gang if you can (especially as at the moment all WLAG courses are being run online – so aren’t limited to just the usual cities).
I made some time for culture in February too, topping up my creative well by going to the Tate Modern for the Dora Maar exhibition. I was really inspired by the constant evolution of Dora’s artwork and modes of creating – it reminded me that you don’t have to focus on just one medium to be a great artist and have an impact, something it can be all too easy to forget. Sometimes I wonder if I should focus on just one creative outlet but from now on when that question pops up, I’ll just remind myself to be more Dora.
Classes and culture aside, February was otherwise mostly swallowed up by work, but of the best kind. I led the planning and delivery of induction training for a brand new cohort of YoungMinds Activists – a time consuming but incredibly rewarding task, empowering young people to become changemakers around youth mental health in the UK.
Before March came to a grinding halt, I did manage to sneak in a couple of highlights.
First of all, I attended the Friday of WOW festival at the Southbank Centre where I went to talks on the badass women of history, the importance of self compassion in behaviour change and becoming an accidental activist. These are the sorts of events and spaces I’ve missed out on all too often since my relapse so it felt great to be able to dip my toe back in the water, albeit briefly. This was pretty much the final thing I did before beginning to social distance.
The last time I was in the YoungMinds office was very early on in the month as well and actually coincided with me interviewing for a new contract. I’m excited to say that, as of April, I’ll be taking on a new role leading the design and delivery of a new programme enabling a small group of our Activists to effectively and safely tell their stories in the media and their communities.
It’s the weirdest possible time to be starting a new job but I genuinely cannot wait – I’ll be focused pretty much solely on this project until the end of the year (although I could be tempted to do the odd freelance hustle on the side as the job will be part time). I’m really excited to take a different approach to work this year – one with more focus and depth on one specific area. It was what I wanted to strive for as the year began, before all of this, but the stability it is giving me now is also a blessed relief.
And I guess that all this leaves is the topic of the hour… coronavirus. As someone living alone with multiple long term conditions – at least one of which seriously affects the functioning of my immune system – this situation has hit me hard. Not to mention feeling concerned for members of my family who are at risk. Moments like these make me feel even more vulnerable, having just the one parent. I know all too well how fragile life can be and that’s terrifying. It’s exhausting being worried about so much all of the time – a reality that all of us are facing, disabled or not. It truly is an inconceivable time.
I don’t want to splurge too much of my anxiety or pandemic panic in a way that isn’t helpful – we all have enough of our own as it is – but it’s impossible not to mention it, so instead I thought I’d list out a few of the things that have been helping me to cope.
The first thing that has been helping me is art – I decided to use money I might have spent on a holiday this year to buy myself an ipad pro and apple pencil instead. Teaching myself to use these new tools, along with procreate, and creating digital artwork has really helped to give me a productive and positive focus. I’m someone who struggles to meditate but when I draw it’s one of the only times I find my brain is silent. I feel so lucky to have the resources to let me self soothe through creativity, especially since I can’t seem to sit down and write to save my life with all the nervousness rotating round my brain.
The second is achingly obvious but going for walks, especially when the sun has been out, has helped me to feel better. I’ll admit I spend a lot of my walks in a panic at people who aren’t keeping far enough away, but I’ve found that taking a mindful approach to walking has helped. I’ve made myself stop to notice the small details, the variety of nature that has kept on growing and thriving, the different colours that I see. At a time where we feel like time is standing still it can be helpful to remember that the world is moving forward, even if we feel like we’re not.
Cooking and baking have also helped both in terms of keeping me busy and giving me a feeling of control. Knowing that I’m taking the right steps to look after myself helps me to feel less helpless. On that point, see also: yoga, weekly therapy over the phone and using moisturiser more often than my poor dry skin has ever seen before in a three week period.
I think my final parting thought on this is about mindset. One of the few benefits of having been ill for half my life is that I’ve gotten pretty used to being limited, stuck inside and not getting to lead the full life that I want to. For the longest time I let resentment build up about the situation and I tried as hard as I could to fight against it. It’s natural to want to rebel against feeling trapped in, but I’ve learned that it just makes the feeling worse.
The key to living a rich life despite being restricted for me has been acceptance, and I think that applies to this situation too. If you get trapped in cycles of thinking about what you’ve lost, how you wish things were, what you wish you were doing, it will only lead you in one direction. Frustration, anger and upset. And those are valid feelings – it’s ok to honour that sense of loss – but I think it’s most important to accept where we are and focus on working with what is available to us now. What are we able to do in this situation to feel better? What will give us purpose? How can we begin to see this stretch of time as being worthy?
I remember venting to my therapist a few months ago about my frustration that I have to spend so much of my time resting instead of living my life as fully as I want to. She challenged me to look at it differently and to see what that rest gives me. The rest allows me to work, to go to classes, to draw, to write, to spend time with my friends. It’s not what I would ideally like, but the rest is serving me too. Her questioning struck a chord with me at the time and I think it rings true now as well.
If we reframe this, to see what social distancing and isolation is enabling, it might be a much healthier way to cope. Stop looking at the life you’ve lost and focus on the lives you’ve saved. This won’t be forever for most people and we are more able to cope with challenges than we think. Try not to focus on the big unknown, the months of uncertainty ahead, and focus on each day, each hour, whatever chunk of time feels manageable for you right now. Focus on what you can control in this moment or on this day to feel happier and stronger, and you never know what wonderful things you might discover in unexpected places.
My favourite example to use is that I only began drawing as something to help me feel a sense of purpose when I was largely bedbound. It was something I could do without much energy or concentration, even if my pain levels were high, and it helped me to feel a bit more grounded. Starting to share my drawing on social media and in zines helped me to feel more connected whilst I spent most of my time alone and in pain. It started as a tool for coping but 3 years later art has become a huge part of making me happier and healthier as a whole. Something really incredible came out of one of the toughest stretches of my life – I promise, not everything is lost just because your world got smaller.
Stay home. Stay safe. Until next time.