Quarterly Review: Winter to Spring

winter to springHere 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.

January

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.

february

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.

March

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.

2019: in review

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I think it’s fair to say that this year has knocked all of us for six. I have been sitting for a while staring at the blinking of my cursor on the screen not knowing where to start, which I suppose says everything you need to know about 2019. On all levels this year has felt primarily chaotic and turbulent, one that never let you quite settle or sit still. I’m leaving the big picture out of this blog, though, to focus simply on the personal of what this year has meant for me.

I have begun to see posts about how reflective blogs can make other people feel worse if they haven’t done as much, which made me wonder if I should write this blog at all, but at the same time it’s a helpful tradition for me and I think it’s right to make space for reflection – both good and bad. I hope that I’m generally quite honest on my blog and so I want my annual reflection to be in keeping. This isn’t intended to be a pure highlight reel – though I have plenty of highlights I want to recap – but also a space for learning from challenges and painful moments, as well as looking ahead with hope.

As with last year, I want to set out with aspirations for the new year – that are more thematic than specific resolutions. Last year I committed to the themes of “create”, “learn” and “be fearless”. Let’s see if I achieved them.

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Work

Looking back at what I achieved with work last year and then at how my business has gone from strength to strength this year has been such a source of encouragement for me. I went freelance from a position of necessity – I needed flexibility and control to be able to work and manage complex health conditions – but I have found myself this year in a position of real strength.

I began working for  myself in an attempt to cobble things together in a way that worked for me; my vision of success was survival. Two and a half years on, my business has grown with me to the point where I’ve been turning work away instead of seeking it. I don’t think I could have imagined that work could look like this when I started. That’s not to say it’s perfect – I’ll go on to that part later – but it is so much more than I ever thought it would be.

This year really has allowed me to do so much. From frontline work with young people working one to one and in groups, to consulting on the youth engagement model for an international campaign, it has been a rollercoaster twelve months.

This year I have:

  • Worked with over 1250 young people as a coach, mentor and educator covering topics such as mental health, social action, confidence and skills development
  • Trained over 200 teachers and youth workers to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing
  • Supported around 150 volunteers to work with young people to develop their skills and broaden their understanding of the world outside of school
  • Worked with 10 charities as a consultant, facilitator, content designer and project manager

 

A pro-bono bonus…

The beginning of 2019 was also special as it marked the beginning of an exciting new project, which I piloted with Write Like a Grrrl. From January to March we ran a version of their initial creative writing course for girls and young women aged 16-24 from the brilliant Arts Emergency. Teaching the course and getting to know the girls was a privilege and a joy, and I’m hopeful we can launch the project on a greater scale in 2020. For me, the combination of creativity and teaching really is a perfect blend and the course had a brilliant impact for the girls we worked with too.

Volunteering

This year I continued my work with Action for M.E, becoming an official trustee in October after a year of shadowing the board. In addition to attending and contributing to meetings, I’ve also used my voice to raise awareness and understanding of M.E via a couple of media opportunities. I spoke to journalists at both The Sunday Times and UniLad to share my story and experiences. I hope my words helped other people with M.E to feel less alone and also helped more people to understand the genuine impact of the condition. I look forward to doing more to support the M.E community next year.

Writing

This year has seen me do the smallest amount externally in terms of writing since 2015 which – given how much I’ve done this year – feels kind of wild. For me, this has very much been the year of the novel.

I have poured my heart and soul into this project this year and it has paid dividends (not literally… but on a soul points level… jackpot.) This was the year I discovered the best motivational tool for my writing was… stickers. I wrote feverishly over the summer (sticker chart in hand) before finally finishing the first draft in September. Not long afterwards, I went on a long anticipated writing retreat with Arvon which I was very generously gifted as my 30th birthday present. It was a week of workshops, tutorials, quiet time (wifi free) and reflection. I loved it. I left with a plan for my second draft and a fresh wave of momentum to keep on going. I’m now about halfway through draft two – having made a lot of significant changes – and I feel more positive about it than ever. The novel has probably been the biggest joy (and struggle and loss of sleep agent etc etc) of my year.

In addition to the novel, however, I still snuck in one publication with my favourites over at Dear Damsels. Way back in the spring, they shared a piece I wrote for their theme of ‘escape’, in which I explored the time early on in my relapse where I felt like the only way out was a geographical move, when truthfully I was desperate to escape my body. As well as sharing my words on their website, they also discussed the piece on their podcast, which felt incredibly special. This wasn’t my first podcast feature of 2019, though, as the podcast “Airing Pain” did a feature on Lancaster University’s Translating Pain project. My contribution to the anthology was one of the pieces read and discussed in the episode and I feel so lucky to have had this experience not just once but twice this year. It really is so affirming to get positive feedback and support for something I work so hard on (and often doubt myself about).

Art

Another creative outlet that has brightened my year immeasurably has been investing more time and energy into developing my skills as an artist. 2018 was the year I started dipping my toe in the water, building my confidence and interest; 2019 has been the year I’ve really embraced drawing and painting as a core part of my life.

I began 2019 with a short course at the House of Illustration, exploring different techniques for illustration over four evenings. I tried out collage, typography, pop up art, watercolours and monoprinting and loved every minute of it. Once the course finished I was keen to find other spaces to keep drawing, to meet other creatives and keep learning and trying new things. This led me to discovering the incredible Sketch Appeal, who run all sorts of brilliant events encouraging people to embrace the joy of drawing and creativity. I have attended several of their workshops, trying out different techniques and collecting a stack of mini portraits to treasure. I was so thrilled when they asked if they could feature me as part of their Christmas countdown of artists and I plan on keeping on sketching with them well into the new year.

Taking my interest in art outside of my flat has really encouraged me to do even more at home. Drawing more – and sharing my efforts over on instagram – has led me to some wonderful connections and even a commission from Dear Damsels. My first official publication and credit as an illustrator is coming up in 2020 and I couldn’t be more excited about it.

Experiences

One of the main milestone moments of this year was turning thirty. I didn’t know how I was going to feel – and dreaded it a little bit in the lead up – but actually it was probably one of the best days of the whole year. It was very much my kind of celebration done my way. I started the day quietly at home, wrote a little and then popped on my favourite 70s disco dress (of course). I met some of my best friends for a wonderful brunch and then hit the pub for a relaxed afternoon (with a surprise cake). It was a day that set the tone for this new decade pretty perfectly, and I followed it up with a few days by the seaside to write and set some goals. Would very much recommend.

Aside from the big day and the other aspects of my year summed up above, here is a broad brush look at some of the things I’ve seen and places I’ve been this year… not bad, all things considered.

  • Plays: The Inheritance; Alys, Always; Grief is the thing with Feathers; Home, I’m Darling; Emilia; Hoarding; The Lehman Brothers Trilogy
  • Exhibitions: Diane Arbus @ Southbank; Seaside Photographed @ Turner Contemporary; Renaissance Nude @ The RA; Picasso Museum and Atelier des Lumieres in Paris;
  • Trips: Broadstairs, Margate, Paris, Devon, Bath, Wales

 

lessons

Old habits die hard

I have always been the best at looking after my health when my health as been at its worst. It sounds funny when you say that – surely you’re best equipped to look after yourself when you’re faring better? The thing is, when you start feeling a bit more like your old, healthier self, it’s ever so tempting to avoid acting like you’re sick at all. If you’re so often starved of energy and life then when it comes to you it’s easy to snatch at it and run.

No matter how often my therapist tries to steer me away from self-blame, I’m sure that my relapse could have been avoided if I hadn’t been so dead set on being like everyone else and pretending my health problems didn’t exist. I took the milder form of my conditions for granted and then promised I wouldn’t ever do that again.

Except… I did a little this year. I’m nowhere near as well as I was four or five years ago – I would still class myself as moderate on the scale of my conditions – but I’m far better than I was in the immediacy of my relapse. It became tempting to push the boundaries this year, and also harder to justify to myself earmarking time to rest, time that shouldn’t be taken up by work, time for my body. It becomes easy to doubt yourself – am I sick enough to warrant this? I have always been ambitious, always hated letting people down, always a little bit rebellious against being held back by illness. I am someone who wants to do everything and struggles when my body says I can’t. I promised I wouldn’t let the rebellious tone or career ambition win again after my relapse but I did quite a few times in 2019.

I’m genuinely proud of everything I’ve achieved with work this year and the work I’ve done but the shiny highlights above don’t account for the personal toll. This year I remembered that pushing myself to work too much leads to feeling overwhelmed and my body not coping as it should do. Pushing too much means I’m always on the back foot and don’t end up with enough energy left for myself or my friends. I miss a time where my hobbies weren’t primarily conducted from a collapsible desk in bed. So much of what I’ve achieved outside of work has been done either through exhaustion or in spite of it.

I know that as we move into 2020 I need to be more mindful of how I plan my time and what I say yes or no to and why. I need to stop letting my need to be like ‘everyone else’ – when I’m not – take over from who I actually am and can be. I need to stop thinking that I ‘should’ be working more or if I have time to offer I should do so. I need to remember that a great contract doesn’t necessarily result in a great life for someone like me.

If next year contained fewer work highlights and more personal joy and stable health then that would be a win.

It’s ok to not feel ok

I think one of the hardest things for all of us to do is to sit with difficult feelings. We are constantly told from every angle that happiness is the ultimate pursuit, which suggests that any other emotion should be shunned at all costs. The thing is, that’s not actually helpful and tends to prolong the challenging feelings you’re trying to avoid.

This year hasn’t been without its share of challenges for me emotionally as well as physically. As I mentioned above, trying so hard to succeed in work and be a yes person for my business had an impact on my social life and feelings of connection. Loneliness and isolation are a common thread through the experiences of people living with chronic illness and there were moments this year where I felt that in full force. I also experienced a painful heartbreak this spring which was difficult to get through and involved a lot of emotions I would rather never have felt. Someone I trusted completely showed themselves to be someone else entirely and that’s a difficult thing to recover from. However, slowly, I have recovered and that’s because I let myself feel the hardest emotions, accepted them and let them pass. I trusted that in time I would feel stronger again.

I have had a lot of moments this year where I’ve not felt like I’ve been coping, like everything is too much and I’m not sure I can keep going. The one thing that has helped has been accepting those feelings as part of being a person – of being alive. Knowing that there is still joy to be had, even if not in that moment, and that negative emotions are valid experiences too. I have had my heart bruised and I have felt defeated but I have also been shown the kindness of strangers, the strength of my friendships and just how much love is open to me if I let myself receive it. The only real constant in life is change, and I’m slowly learning to be better at living with it and accepting that it won’t always feel ok.

 

aspirations

Connect

The brightest moments of this year have come through sources of connection. Meeting wonderful creatives through Sketch Appeal, the ever enriching sisterhood of my writing group, meeting brilliant people through my work, deepening existing friendships and brilliant moments of pure love like my birthday.

My life, as I’ve admitted earlier on, is very much geared towards going through everything solo – I freelance, I live alone, I often don’t have much energy beyond my work – and I would like to try and change that a little this year. I want to find a better balance, making new connections and building a better sense of community, as well as dedicating more time to my favourite people. I think 2019 proved to me that, whilst I value my independence, I’m happiest when I’m not trying to do everything on my own.

Create

This one had to get a second innings, didn’t it? This will probably be an eternal commitment but it’s nice to renew my creative vows annually (or something like that?), I suppose. In 2020, I want to finish draft two of the novel and, if I’m very focused, begin making headway on draft three. I would love to be writing my 2020 blog significantly closer to feeling about to start exploring publication.

I also want to make more time for writing outside of the novel in 2020. I had been resisting focusing writing time on anything else, but I found my creative energy for draft two was restored instead of depleted by making time to write some personal essays in the autumn. It would be nice to connect through writing a little more next year than I did in 2019. This goal will hopefully be supported by the third Write Like a Grrrl course, which I’m due to start in January, and a place at GrrrlCon in June.

In addition to writing, I of course want to continue developing my skills and confidence as an artist. I have a new course booked at House of Illustration in the new year, focused on the more technical side of drawing, which I’m hoping will help to take my work from strength to strength and give me new opportunities to explore.

Evolve

This one is probably the loosest of the lot but feels important to put in there – and a good note to end this blog on. The general idea around evolving for me is to step away from old patterns – as I mentioned above – and to really start to live mindfully.

I want to be more conscious of my choices, to think more holistically, to have the courage to say no to things that won’t serve me and yes to the things that will (even if they scare me a little). I want to give myself the room to grow and the permission to change. Not so much ‘new year, new me’ as ‘new year, stronger me’.

Let’s see what happens, shall we?

November (and some of December): in review

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For the first time since I started writing my monthly round ups, I just didn’t have the energy to write the blog. I’m not sure quite why but it confirmed a feeling I had about reworking how I use my blog next year.

This autumn/winter has felt tough, as my last couple of blogs have hinted at, and that fatigue has taken its toll. I thought I would make a combined effort and write a little about both November and December to catch up.

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Work has been incredibly busy towards the end of the year. I spent a great deal of it in schools, finishing up my work with Future First – whose core programme which required freelance support finished this term – completed the HeadStart Action programme at my schools in Haringey, and began delivering a new resilience building programme on behalf of Mental Health UK.

I also supported YoungMinds Young Activists to hand in a petition to parliament in early November, calling for the government to take early intervention in young people’s mental health seriously. I dipped back into Time to Change in November as well, delivering Young Leaders training in Southampton and supporting campaigning training for Young Champions in Manchester.

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It will come as no surprise that writing has made up a big chunk of my free time. I made some big changes to the novel, after feeling a little stuck, and am now about halfway through the second draft. I’m feeling so much better about it and have a rough outline of the rest of the draft noted down so I’m hoping I can use the festive break to make headway with the second half.

I’ve also spent a lot more time on sketching and drawing in recent weeks. I attended the SketchAppeal Christmas workshop for a dose of collective festive cheer – which is often missing when you go freelance – and also was one of their featured artists in their Sketchmas Countdown. You can read a mini interview with me on all things art, wellbeing and WHAM! on their website.

In other artistic news, I also had the joy of being asked by the wonderful Dear Damsels if I would create an illustration for their 2019 annual. Creating the piece – inspired by a story that will feature in the publication – was such a fun creative process and I’m so excited to see it in print in the new year.

In December I enjoyed a trip down to Keynsham/Bath for my first board meeting as an official Action for M.E trustee, getting to know one of my trustee colleagues on a shared road trip (as well as commiserating about the election results the following day).

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I don’t know if you’ve heard but Christmas and New Year are happening soon so that’s going to be the next couple of weeks sorted! After that it’s getting back into work and starting the new year fresh.

As has become tradition, I will be writing an annual review and sharing that come new year’s eve. In the meantime, have a wonderful Christmas, however you choose to celebrate it, and see you on the other side.

 

October: in review

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For me the month of October felt a little bit patchwork, weaving together a multitude of pieces into a nice but jumbled whole. I guess that feels somewhat indicative of my year more broadly, which I suppose is no bad thing.

This month was mostly a slow plod into autumn and working a little bit harder than usual to manage my health. Here’s my round up of it all.

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The core of my work this month has been with Inspire! on the Headstart Action programme, running the programme in two of my local schools. We’ve been focusing on the so called soft skills and employability for the most part but this week kicked off the second phase of social action. I’m looking forward to supporting my cohorts to make a difference in their local communities. I’ve also been doing my usual dash across the South East with Future First to run careers workshops with secondary schools – it’s been a busy autumn term so far for delivery work.

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In addition to youth facing work, I’ve also been gearing up for a new role as a Training Associate with Mental Health UK. From November, I’ll be training up teachers to run resilience programmes for young people in schools as well as co-facilitating their first cohorts.

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This month has been a bit trying when it comes to my health conditions (I feel like I say this every month but we’ll gloss over that – basically it has been harder for the last 31 days!) I’m not sure what it is – I’ve not been doing especially more than I’ve been used to this year but something has been causing my symptoms to flare a little more strongly. Maybe it’s the change of seasons – the cold always hits me quite hard – but whatever caused it, I’ve been in the mood to hibernate significantly more.

One of the biggest days of my month, however, was health related but for all the best reasons. After a year of shadowing the board at Action for M.E, I was voted in officially as a Trustee at their October conference.

I’m sure it will come as no surprise that writing has formed a large part of my world outside of work this month. I’ve been filling up my sticker chart with gusto, kicking off my second draft and even writing some personal essays to submit to magazines.

I was also really thrilled to discover one of my pieces for Dear Damsels – “I have been thinking a lot” – was also featured on their podcast earlier this year. You can listen to a brief extract and discussion of my writing in their June episode. It was such a joy to hear my work spoken about so warmly and I’m so grateful for their ongoing support.

Finally, after months of putting most of my creative energy into my novel, I finally made some time for art again this month. This culminated in attending a full day with Sketch Appeal for their Inktober special. I had an amazing time co-creating artwork and drawing/painting portraits of the other attendees. I love taking home the portraits created of me – always so different – and the connections I make on the day. So much of my recent energy has gone into work and solo creative practice and it was good to remind myself that making time for fun and friendship is really important too if I can manage it.

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Looking ahead to November, my calendar is mostly more work, work, work. I’ve got plenty lined up with everyone I worked with this month, alongside some youth engagement work with YoungMinds and training for young champions at Time to Change. Expect a lethargic blog post in thirty days!

Otherwise, I plan to keep up the pace of my writing, continue making time for art and for my friends as well. Fingers crossed my body sorts its act out so I can manage to pack it all in! I’ll see you on the other side.

September: in review

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I think my most used phrase across September has been that I’ve been “a bit all over the place”. It felt like another run away month, so much so that the end of the month and beginning of the next escaped me when it came to writing my blog. Between a grumbling body, getting back into a new school year, family events and pushing on with my book, I’ve not quite felt on top of things so much as chasing after them. Still, what’s life without its challenges?!

Here’s a round up of what’s been going on.

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The six weeks of the summer seem to have passed in no time and September saw me back in schools each week. I’ve started a new project with Inspire Education Business Partnership, leading the delivery of the HeadStart Action programme, which aims to support young people at risk of becoming NEET to develop employability skills and lead a social action project in their communities. I”l be running the programme at two schools in Haringey for the next three months. Both of the schools I’m working with are a convenient 20 minute walk from where I live and it feels really nice to be making an impact on my doorstep, as well as introducing more young people to social action, which was the catalyst for my career.

Alongside HSA, I’ve been picking up workshops with Future First again, talking to young people across the South East about careers and life after school.

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September was a massive month in terms of my writing. I finished the first draft of my novel after a long old process of getting words on the page and I still have to pinch myself a little that I got there. I finished early in the month and spent the last week of September in Devon with Arvon, on a tutored retreat.

The retreat was formed of morning workshops, 1-1 tutorials, evening talks and a lot of fun and creative inspiration over six days (with no signal or wifi to distract us). After I overcame my initial imposter syndrome, the retreat was a bit of a game changer for me. Within a few days I had figured out what wasn’t working in my first draft and created a solid plan that I’m happy with for the second. I met some brilliant people and benefited so much from the time, space and focus to take my novel forward.

Aside from writing, my September saw an awful lot of resting (my body threw quite a few tantrums this month) as well as dog sitting a new favourite – the sweetest angel of a puppy, Finch – and another quick round trip to Wales to visit my Grandad in hospital and check in on my Grandma. I’ve probably done a lot more than I should have for my health and my body this month but some things deserve that extra push.

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October will see me launching into my second draft and trying to keep up the creative inspiration gained from the retreat by booking in some bookish events. I would like to keep building the sense of being part of a community of writers who understand, which I found so helpful at my retreat and have been lucky enough to find in my core group of Write Like a Grrrl grads these last few years. I’m hoping with focus and the foundations from my first draft in place, that this rewrite won’t take anywhere near as long. I’m really excited to get working.

I have an awful lot of work coming up, between Inspire and Future First (and perhaps some new projects too), and October is also the annual conference and AGM for Action for M.E, where I will hopefully be voted in and approved as an official Trustee. I’m looking forward to being able to make a continued difference on the board.

See you on the other side.

 

August: in review

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This month’s review post is coming a little later than usual, as the end of my month was dominated by trips away (and the resulting rest stretches required). The month as a whole was about as mixed as the weather was – busy with work, intermittent flare days with my conditions and moments of light and joy with friends, family and a solo mini break.

It feels like one of those months that lasted forever and yet was over before it begun. Here’s my round up of what I’ve been up to.

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I tried to have a slower August with work, focused just on my project with Time to Change (though of course that never quite works). This month saw me travel to Cambridge, Manchester and York to support regional meetings for young campaigners. It was such a tonic for the soul to meet with all of these creative and passionate young people, determined to challenge the stigma around mental illness. I’ve also been designing training for young campaigners and supporting the wider youth involvement team.

Around the edges of this work, I’ve been organising my autumn with other clients. I had an induction as a freelance Youth Engagement Worker at YoungMinds, chatted with Inspire Education Business Partnership about leading delivery of HeadStart Action – an employability and social action programme – in two schools in my borough and booked in workshop dates in schools with Future First. It’s looking like it’ll be a busy few months.

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This month I really knuckled down with my novel and hit the 80,000 word mark, which I still can’t quite believe. The process of finishing the first draft is taking longer than I expected but I’m getting there slowly. After three months of keeping a sticker chart, I’ve learned that motivational techniques used for primary school children are also highly effective on me… and I’m fine with it.

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I’ve also been out and about a lot this month, visiting a friend in Bristol, taking a few days off in Paris and finishing the month in Wales with family. Paris was precisely the break I needed (though I would have loved an additional few days), allowing me some time dedicated solely to art, vintage shopping and caffeine. It’s one of my absolute favourite cities to visit and I’m not sure I will ever tire of going there – it’s the perfect location to recharge and refresh.

This last weekend I was in Wales, as my grandparents have now both moved out of the family home and we need to get it ready for sale. It was a strange and intense weekend, sorting out their belongings, going through stacks and stacks of old photos, getting used to the idea of their magical home no longer being in the family. It may well be the last time I ever stay there. It feels especially sad to lose another link with my mum but it is also the right move for my grandparents, so I’m trying to focus on the positives and how lucky we were to have such a wonderful place to go to for so long.

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As a new school year starts, the pace with work will be picking up again and I’m due to be working with all of the clients mentioned in my work section at various points across September.

It won’t be all work and no play, though, as at the end of the month I’ll be going on an Arvon writing retreat which I truly cannot wait for. I’m looking forward to some dedicated time to focus on my writing and, if I haven’t done so by then, hopefully finish the first draft. I can’t wait to tell you all about it next month.

July: in review

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I’ve been looking back at the last month and, in all honesty, I’ve struggled to come up with a cohesive narrative for it. For me, July felt very fragmented, separated into a multitude of shifting phases – good, bad, indifferent – marked by extreme weather, busy weeks and the impact that all of those things combined can have on a chronically ill body.

I think I  approached a lot of this month on survival mode – just trying to get through things and to come out the other side, rather than being able to stop and enjoy the better moments. It’s the sort of month I’m quite used to dealing with but not one I was expecting when this month started. Here’s my round up of a changeable July.

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Across the month, my work focus has been split between project work with Time to Change and a large number of workshop deliveries with Future First ahead of the end of term. This has seen me hopping between designing training for young campaigners, supporting staff to plan and hold regional campaign meetings, training professionals about breaking down stigma through conversation, all punctuated with popping into schools to talk to sixth formers about careers.

I also spent a day down in beautiful Bath early on in the month, for a board away day with Action for M.E. It was an intense day (who knew that talking about M.E for 6 hours when you have M.E would be exhausting?!) but also really inspiring. I loved getting to meet more of the staff team and hearing about all of the brilliant work they do to support people living with my condition. There are worse places to spend the day, too.

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I think perhaps part of the ongoing inconsistency I’ve felt with this last month has a lot to do with inconsistency with my health and wellbeing. It’s one of the most volatile months I’ve had with my health in a while. I think a combination of stress, a busy calendar (including quite a lot of travel around the country for work) and the extreme weather have probably all come together and formed the root of it. Stress has affected my ability to sleep – waking multiple times every night, my schedule has put strain on my body in addition to the extreme temperatures which has flared my fibromyalgia and fatigue leading to days of bed rest and a multitude of cancelled plans, all of which has lowered my resilience and seen my anxiety creep up into my chest. It seems to have been a perfect storm for feeling overwhelmed. I think I’ve felt a little more of the weight of loneliness this month (though it has been weighing on me for a while) and a little less able to keep my head above water and see the bright side. My natural reaction when feeling this way is to withdraw but that’s probably only making the way I feel worse. The isolation and otherness that comes with my range of conditions has been present in the back of my mind now for a while.

I was torn over whether to talk about the way I’ve been feeling here – to share some of my innermost feelings on a public platform on my freelance website – but it seemed disingenuous to talk about my month and not to say it; it’s remarkable how additionally tiring it is to keep pretending that you’re fine. I’m not quite sure what the answer to this feeling is yet but I’m hoping it will come to me in time. Hopefully August will treat me a little bit more gently and I can begin to work it out.

Outside of the sharper edges of my month, there have been a few shards of light. I celebrated a close friend’s 30th, dog sat one of my favourite pups and had a brief little trip down to Margate last weekend. I’ve been a little less consistent with my writing this month than I was in June, but I’ve still made a significant amount of progress. I’m now a mere 125 words away from 70,000 which still feels a little bit unreal to me. One of the most consistent things my parents would always say to me growing up was that they knew if I put my mind to something I’d make it happen. My dad will often say to me now that I inherited my mum’s willpower and it’s nice thinking I’ve put it to good use by committing to writing a story that, in part at least, honours her. I’m hoping in August I can keep the word count growing and maybe even see the finish line of the first draft.

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August is set to be a little bit more peaceful, as I’ve purposefully booked a maximum of 3 days’ work per week – all of which I’ll be spending with the team at Time to Change. I want to use some of the time I have freed up to write, as well as to rest, and at the end of the month I’ll be spending a few relaxed days in Paris.

Hopefully all of this combined will mean that I can come to my next round up a little bit more brightly. I’ll see you on the other side.

June: in review

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The last thing I wrote on the blog was that I had a feeling June was going to be a good month and, all in all, I think I was right. June has been a month of celebration, reflection, progress and planning. Slow, steady and quiet but all the while quite mighty.

Last month I opened my blog talking about the challenges of coping with heartbreak but this month is ending in total opposition – this month has ended with so much love. Here is a round up of what has been happening.

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This month I started a new piece of work, supporting the children and young people’s team at Time to Change with their youth involvement work over the summer months. I’m designing a new training programme for young campaigners to access over the next year, as well as supporting anti-stigma training for professionals and regional campaign meetings. The team’s base is in my old office at Rethink Mental Illness, so it’s nice to be back with so many familiar faces doing some great work.

I’ve also been kept busy by school sessions with Future First across London and the South East and mentoring my students at Skinners Academy for Inspire Education Business Partnership.

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The biggest life milestone this month was of course my 30th birthday! I thoroughly enjoyed celebrating with my friends – the recipe for my day was essentially booze, brunch and best mates. I would thoroughly recommend it.

I had a week off after my birthday so took myself away for a few days to the seaside, to write, rest and reflect. I stayed in the world’s cutest air b’n’b in Broadstairs down in Kent and did some necessary recharging of my batteries, set some goals for my thirties, as well as getting 4000 new words on the page.

That leads me on to another key feature of my month – I really found some momentum with my novel and somehow wrote 10,000 words. I’ve now surpassed the 60,000 word mark and am into writing the final section of the novel. All of a sudden finishing the first draft feels like a real, tangible thing and I’m incredibly excited about it. One of my (very generous) 30th birthday gifts was an Arvon retreat, which I’ll be doing in September and I would love to have a full draft ready to work on by then.

I also took myself back to Sketchy Bitches for the second time and got some brilliant new mini portraits of me. It’s such a wonderful, friendly space to relax and draw with likeminded women and I think I’ll be becoming a regular.

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July is another busy one for work, between Time to Change and a record number of Future First workshops to run ahead of the summer holidays. I’m also looking forward to heading down to Bath next week for a board away day with Action for M.E.

I’m hoping to continue the writing pace I set this month – now my novel’s ending feels like it’s within reach I feel more motivated than ever to keep going. I’m also heading down to Margate at the end of the month for  weekend of writing beside the sea.

Other than that, I’m hoping to just enjoy July with friends and loved ones – with any luck the glorious weather that’s seen out June will continue into next month. I’ll see you on the other side.

May: in review

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For the first time, I approached this blog with a little trepidation this month. Usually I enjoy the reflective process, jotting down notes for each segment and browsing through my calendar for any key moments I might have forgotten. Giving myself some time to take stock, acknowledge progress and look forward has become a really helpful ritual. Today, though, that felt a little more challenging than usual – it hasn’t been the best month. This isn’t the place to go into depth about it, but May has involved a painful heartbreak and so much of the month felt blurry to me in many ways.

The positive of having this monthly reflective commitment to myself, however, is that by taking some time to look at the rest of the month, outside of those emotions, I was able to find some brighter spots too and to remind myself that all is not lost. Here is my round up of the rest.

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My main focus this month has been my youth engagement consultancy with Plan International UK, developing a concept note and processes for the youth element of a new international campaign. It has been really interesting to look at youth engagement in a global context and to step into the world of international development. My time with Plan has now come to an end, but I look forward to seeing what happens with my work once the campaign launches.

I also had the joy of working with Arts Emergency this month, designing and facilitating bespoke training for their team on youth mental health awareness and support. I really enjoy the process of creating training and working with teams to support their learning and development. I would love to do more of this work moving forward and hope this is a side to my business I can continue to grow. I also hope to keep my link with Arts Emergency going, as myself and Kerry (the powerhouse behind Write Like a Grrrl) begin the process of funding applications to expand our creative writing programme for young women.

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All of this month’s life updates come in the form of creative output and exploration which, if you read my blog regularly, probably comes as no surprise.

Writing has been a key feature for me, both in terms of publication and progress on my novel. Mid month I had a short piece of creative non-fiction published by the ever wonderful Dear Damsels, titled “I have been thinking a lot”. The submission theme which I wrote the piece for was ‘Escape’ and I was drawn to write about the time not long after my relapse where I became fixated on the idea that I needed to escape London, when what I really wanted to get away from was my body. It took a lot of work, developing my health and how I felt about my disability, before I could realise that distinction. Now I’m in a much better place and have made amends with poor old London, though I don’t think I’ll be here forever. Now though, I want to leave because it feels right – not because my body feels wrong. Writing honestly about personal subjects and putting it out for the world to see is scary but it’s worth it when I receive feedback from others who tell me they can relate. Those are the moments that remind me why I keep writing.

My determination to keep writing this month means I’ve also made it past the 50,000 word mark on my novel. I’ve managed to build a sense of momentum for myself again and I’m feeling proud of myself for remaining focused on this project, even through some really challenging years. I’m hopeful I can keep this productivity going over the summer and continue to edge towards finishing my first draft.

I was lucky enough to go to see three different theatre productions in May. Hoard at The Arcola in Dalston, The Lehman Brothers Trilogy and Emilia in the West End. I was blown away by the performances and staging in The Lehman Trilogy, but the hilarious and moving all-female cast of Emilia won my heart.

 

This month I also attended a couple of wonderful workshops which helped me to develop new skills and try out new techniques. In the first workshop, I learned some basic embroidery skills with M.Y.O London, creating my own embroidered wall hanging. It’s not something I think I would do often but I did find it a relaxing and interesting way to create imagery. I took away some key tips and tricks which mean I could pick up a hoop again in the future should a new design idea take my fancy – watch this space.

The second workshop was ‘Sketchy Bitches’, organised and led by Dulcimer Draws. It was a lovely afternoon spent with brilliant, creative women where we created collaborative drawings and then drew mini portraits of each other. I was thrilled with some of mine (and also secretly delighted to learn that I’m apparently fun to draw). I have so enjoyed building a community of women who write and would love to do the same with art, so I definitely think I’ll be going to one of these workshops again.

 

 

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The biggest date in my diary for June is actually this coming Sunday, when I will be turning 30. Given it’s a “big birthday”, I thought I’d be met with more existential dread than I have been this last week but instead I’ve actually just been reminded of my Grandad. I remember when he turned 90 he said “I just want it to be over with so I can get on with my life”, which is sort of how I feel about this birthday! I’m looking forward to a day spent with those closest to me, of course, but I kind of just want to get stuck into being 30 too.

As for the rest of the month, I’m currently enjoying some time off, after a very busy start to the year. It’s nice to have a bit of clear headspace and some dedicated time to relax. Things will be picking up again soon, though, as I’m heading back into the world of Rethink Mental Illness in a couple of weeks time. I’m delighted to be joining the children and young people’s team at Time to Change over the summer, designing the training and development offer for young champions and supporting their youth engagement work in schools. I’ll also be popping into some schools with Future First and Brook along the way to lead some of their final education sessions before the end of term.

Finally, from June onwards I will be getting back into a more balanced schedule again, reducing the amount I’m working and creating more space to focus on fun, creativity and staying well. I haven’t gotten it right yet in 2019 but now is as good a time as any to start fresh. I have a good feeling about next month – I’ll let you know in my next round up if I was right.

April: in review

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Between the end of a regular contract, the Easter school break and associated bank holidays this month has felt a little more hodge podge than most. Somehow, though, I don’t seem to have slowed down. All the same, it has been nice to see some sunshine creeping back into the fray in April and to mix up my routine a bit. Here’s my round up of a mixed up month.

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The Easter holidays meant that half of the month was quieter than usual – I’m so used to hopping between schools to run workshops most weeks so it made for a more noticeable shift in pace than I’ve found with half terms and Christmas breaks in the past. I sneaked a workshop in at the end of April, though, and have lots of school work lined up between now and the summer.

Instead of facilitation, I’ve been kept busy by a new consultancy contract with Plan International UK, who I joined in early April and will be working with until late May. I’m working with them to develop the structure and details for the youth engagement component of an upcoming global campaign. It has been fascinating to look at how to engage, motivate and support young people from around the world and create a sense of teamwork, purpose and ownership despite the distance between them. I’m looking forward to developing the work further in May.

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This month has been heavily creative outside of my working life. I finished my illustration course at House of Illustration, learning about monoprinting, watercolour and 3D art in the process. I absolutely loved the experience and am trying to find more workshops and courses I can try out to further my skills. The course really fired me up to experiment and do more art work outside of the class. I’ve been playing with different techniques, buying new materials and even learning to use my scanner properly so I can create digital versions of my artwork.

I’ve also sneaked in a couple of trips to the theatre. First, I saw the stage adaptation of “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” at the Barbican. Cillian Murphy gave a masterclass in acting, although I found the overall production something of a sensory overload (which isn’t ideal for someone with a sensitive nervous system!) I also saw “Home, I’m Darling”, the new play from Laura Wade. It was another show I was unsure about – I wasn’t sure I understood what I was supposed to take away – but the set was brilliant and despite buying cheap tickets we got to pretend to be fancy in a box!

The rest of my free time has been a mixed bag, from a glorious laid back Easter weekend painting and working on my novel to attending my first roller derby match to support a friend and cultured weekends at exhibitions. All in all, I feel like I’ve been more able to enjoy my free time lately and it’s been so wonderful to rediscover a little bit of balance.

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May has a lot in store for me and I’m really looking forward to it. Work wise, I’m continuing my project with Plan, as well as running bespoke youth mental health training for Arts Emergency, running workshops in schools and mentoring my students as part of the HeadStart Action programme.

Outside of work, I have a creative month of workshops lined up, including an embroidery class, a book binding class and a social sketching workshop. I’ll fill the gaps with writing, drawing, painting and social plans (and possibly a touch of existential dread as my 30th birthday begins to loom). I’ll see you on the other side.