Monday, 13 July 2015

INSPIRING INDIVIDUALS #1 - CHRIS LEWIS

As part of my massive blog overhaul that has been taking place over the last few weeks, a few new series are going to be introduced, regular posts which deal with a common theme or topic.

This one is entitled 'Inspiring Individuals' - and, in a self-explanatory manner will consist of a post dedicated to an individual who has positively inspired and impacted upon my life in one way or another in recent months.

The series was inspired by an induction day I attended last Thursday for Macmillan Cancer Support, an incredible organisation who I successfully managed to get a two and a half month internship with within their Cancer Information Development Team. I feel extremely grateful to have received this great position, more so because the induction day for this position rewarded me with the opportunity to hear the story of Chris Lewis.

Chris was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma Stage IV in 2007, after experiencing extreme tiredness, lack of sleep and swollen tonsils. After a successful stem cell transplant, found through the Anthony Nolan Trust, Chris had begun to feel much better, yet unfortunately suffered various infections and diseases as a result of the transplant, such as Grant Versus Host Disease (GVHD) and shingles.

As Chris' ill health deteriorated, he was tired of feeling like a prisoner in his own home. Before cancer, Chris was a successful self-employed Business Consultant specialising in women's fashion.  He was lucky enough as a result of his job to travel the world through his hard work, and made his living alongside his wife and two children. Cancer, although a debilitating illness, did not suspend Chris' hard work and determination.

Chris started contacting national cancer charities, such as Macmillan Cancer Support, to seek a voluntary role in order to get him out and about whilst also raising vital awareness of cancer. Initially, he begun volunteering with Macmillan for a day a week - which allowed him to exercise the frustration Chris was having for not being able to work due to his illness. His friends later encouraged him to begin a blog, providing Chris with an extra focus through writing about his experiences. Through writing his blog, Chris wished to remove the feelings of isolation associated with cancer, and used the blog as a mechanism through which people were successfully able to talk about cancer and their experiences.

This is where Chris' Cancer Community came about and is what led to Chris' success today. Chris now works with a variety of national health organisations in order to campaign for continued support and aftercare services for all affected by cancer. He speaks at various conferences and events across the world, from appearing at 10 Downing Street, to speaking at the the European Bone Marrow Transplant conference. Chris works with Macmillan on a consistent basis by delivering talks to interns such as myself as a reminder of how essential charities and organisations such as Macmillan are for people like Chris and all others affected by cancer.


We all know someone affected by cancer, or we may be affected by cancer ourselves. That fact is well known. Chris' story reminded me of the importance of making the best out of an awful situation. Each day is an experience which we can use to educate and inspire another. Life has the ability to throw awful things at us which are out of our control, and Chris' story demonstrates the ability to shape these awful things into change for the greater good. The importance of social media as a tool to start these discussions and make these changes cannot be underestimated.

Sometimes hearing the story of a complete stranger can alter your entire outlook on the way that you view the world. I can't even emphasise how vital and crucial it can be to be open to hearing the stories of those around you. Chris' story has made me determined to keep working hard for what I believe in, and to try to make the best out of each situation.

You can find Chris' blog by clicking here - in the meantime, have a wonderful week!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

PERFECTION IN RECOVERY - A BLOG RESPONSE

Firstly, before I begin I'd like to address that this post is a response/agreement to another post that was created by a good friend of mine, Sami over at H.O.P.E - entitled 'Shouldn't I be pooping rainbows?' - links can be found by clicking on the bold text. This post struck me as it addressed the point that one can reach in recovery where occasions of feeling down or blue can leave one feeling confused, and like they've failed recovery in some way.

'Shouldn't I be pooping rainbows', the amusing yet remarkably relevant title to Sami's post, addresses this concept. Recovery is supposed to be perfect, right? Smiley, happy, and positive. Full of hope and determination and strength. We see images and quotes of mental health recovery every single day (well, if like me you spend far too much time on Tumblr). Just now in fact, whilst researching for this post I came across tons of images entitled 'When I recover...' - followed by phrases such as 'I will live my life and be happy', and 'I'm going to wake up in the morning and not worry about anything at all. I'm going to be free'.

I have so many issues with these idealised images and expectations of recovery that get thrust across social media. Pictures of health, happiness and vitality which of course can be expected from a recovered mental health sufferer, yet refuse to acknowledge the difficulties and pressures faced on expectation of a newer, 'recovered' self. The auxiliary verb 'will' enhances these pressures and connotes an idea of perfection and endless happiness as an end result of the recovery journey.

I believe I have spoken about this before previously on this blog, but the word recovery never has one complete definition for all sufferers of mental health. The definition of the word has become so contorted and misinterpreted that an original meaning is unable to be traced. Yet the way I recognise it, that's okay. How can a word in the English language ever encapsulate the momentous journey that one embarks on from a state of supposed irretrievable despair and hopelessness, to somewhere that even dares to venture a footstep from the pit they feel enclosed in. To some, feeling marginally better will be as a result of not feeling suicidal, and to some, it would arise from gaining the strength to return to studying or work. Some people just know when their mental state begins to improve, getting through each day can be an achievement and a step in the right direction. Feeling 'better' or 'recovered' after a period of mental illness could be recognised as never returning to your previous symptoms ever again.

Yet unfortunately, for most that isn't the case. Why? Because life isn't idealised. It comes with its peaks and troughs and basic human emotion is a huge part of that. Mental illness or not, we all have the capability to experience a variation of emotions at any one given time. We have the right to feel sad when sadness arises, we have the right to feel angry or frustrated, we have the right to cry because we're human. Going through periods where you feel low or angry or insecure doesn't mean that you've 'failed' at 'recovery' because failing is impossible. As Sami said, the more that you take each low day and push past it, even if it is just by surviving the day, you're demonstrating an ability to push past your vulnerabilities without succumbing to the darkness that surrounded you before you began on your journey. If that darkness returns, let it. Use each set back and experience to strengthen you, not enlighten your insecurities.

I've reached a point in life now where I never say that I'm 'in recovery'. Because the word means nothing to me anymore. I have no idea where the end goal would be, when I would ever be satisfied once I had spent an evening comparing myself to all of the 'I will be free' and 'I will be happy's. I know that I can't be happy all the time and thus telling myself that I would be happy when recovered is an impossible feat. I'd be lying to myself. To me, I'm in a much stronger place mentally than I was 3-4 years ago and if I make those comparisons, that is the sign of vast improvements that I can be proud of. It does not, however, mean that I believe I will never experience down moments again - I had earlier on on this week in fact. I've learned not to beat myself up so much for the down days and learn from them instead. How did this occur? Could I have prevented it? How can I take care to ensure this doesn't happen again? What coping strategies can I use to deal with this negative event/thought? And vice versa.

Aspirations are good and healthy but only if they are realistic. The way that 'recovery' has been idealised takes from its reality and only allows further self-criticism at hurdles which can be overcome. As Sami rightfully puts it, 'we are not failing, we are living'. Perfection doesn't exist, and I kind of love it that way. I have to remind myself that the days where I feel low are okay, the days where I'm angry are okay, the days where I'm happy are all okay. We grow as people each and every day and I firmly believe every event that we encounter aids our development in some way shape or form. Even the shit ones.

So try not to beat yourself up for your setbacks and imperfections. You're imperfect, I'm imperfect, we're all imperfect and if we weren't, we wouldn't be human.

And guess what? You're doing great.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

POST-ITALY : THE BODY IMAGE POST

Many of you will know that my summer holiday has already come and gone (to my utmost dismay) and I returned from a week long break in Italy on the 10th of June, alongside celebrations of mine and Nathan's 6 year anniversary on the 9th of June (which feels amazing to say as one of my first posts on this blog was marking our 2 year anniversary!).

Aside from mourning the gorgeous views of Lake Garda I woke to each day, saying 'Ciao' at every possible opportunity and my daily over-indulgence of carbohydrates (note: I haven't eaten pizza or pasta since returning from holiday - it just won't be the same!), I've been mulling over the difference in my body image whilst I was on holiday and here back in England, now the July heatwave is upon us.

There's something about being in a hot foreign country that makes it more acceptable to wear less clothing. Which is fine, obviously. But I've been thinking about my newly adapted carefree attitude to my body as I'm getting older, and how while I'm still reluctant to wear crop tops and anything vaguely showing a hint of cleavage and or thigh whilst at home, it somehow becomes simple enough to do it elsewhere?

Post eating disorder, I would argue that I, like most humans, still have PLENTY of body image hang-ups. I throw at myself the common insults that we somehow rejoice in sabotaging ourselves with - I'm too fat for this dress, these trousers make my legs look like tree trunks, my stomach is too flabby - etc etc etc. More recently however, I feel like the attachment of my body image issues to my previous eating disorder has lessened and lessened as years have gone by. I am aware that this has a lot to do with getting older, as much as I'd hate to admit it - and the self-acceptance that has become a part of that, which doesn't come naturally to everyone, I know.

At home, wearing dresses without tights is a huge deal, wearing tank tops draws attention to my chest (which brings on the gross wolf-whistles and smoochy kisses from strange men in white vans - hate to commit to a stereotype but it's true) - and the thought of exposing my stomach makes me feel sick. But deep down, I know there's nothing wrong with my body. I know there's nothing wrong with anyone's bodies. I guess that's become the crucial difference between my life whilst battling with an eating disorder and my life nowadays.

The freedom in Italy (and other countries I've been to prior) felt exhilarating. Not just when I was standing on top of the Dolomites mountains, or lounging on a gondola through Venice. When I walked out of my hotel wearing shorts and a crop top without giving a flying fuck about what people thought of what I was wearing or what my body looked like.

To just be in the moment and not care because there are far greater things in the world to gaze upon than the sight of your body for five hours that you've scrutinised it in the mirror for fat, lumps, bumps, scars. Five hours that you could spend living. Bodies are great, are wonderful, and they are capable of doing wonderful things, but if had let the way I felt about my body determine my life any longer, I wouldn't be standing on top of that mountain or on that gondola boat. My body was initially making me feel trapped, and in Italy it made me feel free.

I can't quite work out why I feel so restricted here back home in London. I've come up with a number of ideas but I guess people know me here. People are capable of judging me here. People wolf-whistle at me here, and occasionally follow me until I feel uncomfortable (yes, this has happened a couple of times).

How many times, on a hot day in England like this one, have I still worn jeans and t-shirts as opposed to shorts and tank tops for fear of what other people think? For fear of people (what people?) judging me? So many times. Looking back on my time in Italy, I know it isn't worth it. Admitting you have a few scars or a little fat on your stomach is okay. Admitting your thighs wobble and your boobs are too big for your waist is okay. Admitting your imperfections is okay because imperfections are the new perfections.

Life is way too short to waste days at war with your body.








I'll leave you today with a couple of pictures from my trip. Hope you have a lovely weekend!