Brain malfunction

What do we do when our brains stop working? What happens when we can no longer process information that used to take us seconds to understand? What happens when your whole identity, your career, depends on emotional resilience, a resilience you can no longer offer?

A little under three months ago, my brain seemed to stop functioning. I could no longer hold the hundreds, thousands of thoughts and memories and complex bits of information in my mind. My emotions seemed to go haywire. I felt like I was constantly exhausted, my body aching just as much as my mind. 

One cold Thursday evening last November, my brain at melting point after a draining day at work, I took myself to my GP’s office. There I sat, tearful and breathless, trying to explain to the kind and understanding doctor why I felt I couldn’t carry on anymore. She listened, offered me the tissues that perched precariously on the edge of her desk, and smiled. This, she said, was the right decision. Asking for help, recognising this was not my usual character, that some dark and malevolent force – whether chemical or otherwise – was overshadowing my mind; that was the most important step. 

This shadow was growing ever larger, I explained, relieved that here was someone, a professional, who could see the effect this was having. It obscures everything; clarity of thinking, the energy to get out of bed in the morning (let alone to go for a run or walk the dog, simple tasks I would previously look forward to). And especially, my emotions.

Previously happy relationships, with friends, family and my partner, had felt like some kind of punishment. Only, it was me punishing them. I told myself that I was a burden on these people, these people who loved me. They love me so much, I convinced myself, that they can’t see how much better their lives would be without me. I had started to make plans, dark, dramatic plans. I would look up train times to some far-flung place, somewhere they wouldn’t be able to track me down. I’d book an anonymous, cheap hotel room (with cash, of course, so they – I never really thought about who ’they’ were – wouldn’t be able to trace me through my debit card). Stay there for a few days, writing and reflecting, and then, take the action I so desperately wanted to take.

I didn’t tell the doctor all of this, of course. I told her, rather euphemistically, that I had made ‘plans’, and she inferred enough from that. 

She signed me off work for a week, put me back on the antidepressants I had gradually come off only six months before, and told me to take the time to myself. Get some sleep. Eat well. Exercise. And I did. A good friend sent me links to YouTube yoga practices, and I forced myself to do them every day, even if only for twenty minutes at a time. A new and increasingly close friend accompanied me for walks and the occasional run.

My partner, as always, remained the solid foundation of my sanity. If I wanted to sob and wail, he would let me, holding on to my shaking shoulders, making me cups of tea on those mornings when I just couldn’t bear to peer my head above the covers.

I ended up taking a fortnight off work (my employers, I must say, were very understanding throughout this time). Over that time, I gradually got closer towards something resembling a functioning brain. I set myself a goal of walking 13,000 steps every day, finding exercise to be the biggest lift. I spent time with my dog, my gentlest, closest companion. I reconnected to my body through yoga, rediscovering the love I had for stretching, building strength and flexibility. It all seemed to be falling back into place perfectly.

Except, here I am again. I visited my GP again last Thursday (what is it with me and Thursdays?), burnt out after weeks of intensive work meetings, conferences, and travel. I didn’t understand it, I told her. I thought I was doing so much better, but now I feel lower than ever. I’ve been signed off for two weeks this time; she is convinced that I will need longer, but I am acutely aware of the impact this is having on my career and finances.

I am still exercising, every day. I’m writing, I’m reaching out to friends and family. My partner is as understanding and patient as ever. What I know is that I need to address this, whatever ‘this’ is. It is not me, it does not define me, but my writing about it, by providing some explanation to those around me that this is why I have become what I have become, perhaps that will go some way towards building that resilience again.

And if any of this resonates with you, talk to someone. There are so many out there who really do care. I am one of them. I won’t give up, and neither should you.

Becoming fatter…and fitter

Two years ago, I could comfortably fit into a Size 10, sometimes even an 8, depending on how much I had deprived myself that week. I had defined cheekbones, slim thighs and a very visible collarbone. Friends and family complimented me on how “fantastic” I looked, how much weight I had lost, how my (very strict) diet was really working for me.

I did very little exercise, had a stressful job and a truly miserable home life. I lived in a city that I hated, and that I was convinced hated me. In the midst of a destructive relationship, I had cut myself off from my oldest and closest friends. I was shrinking.

Physically, emotionally, psychologically, I was forcing myself to take up less space in the world, to disappear, pound by pound, stone by stone.

In a twisted way, whenever anyone told me how “great” I looked, rather than taking pride in that, it simply validated my disappearing act. It made me push harder, restrict myself further, tell myself that my worth was measured only by the amount of space freed up by slender limbs and a concave stomach.

Now I refuse to shrink.

I eat healthily – properly healthily. Fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, plenty of greens and gallons of water. But I don’t restrict myself. I love dark chocolate, coffees with plenty of milk, the occasional slice of cake or ice cream shared with my love at the end of a delicious meal at our local pizzeria.

And I move. My god, how I move. Walking, walking everywhere. Walking the dog at dawn, walking to and from work, walking when I feel stressed, or sad, or just in need of some fresh air. I’ve even begun running. Slowly, sweaty and red-faced, I bounce through the beautiful green spaces Newcastle has to offer, like Jesmond Dene or Leazes Park.

I look ridiculous while I’m doing it, but when I move I feel so alive, so vibrant, so confident. Feelings I can’t remember experiencing in a very long time.

I could quite accurately be described as ‘plump’ these days, and have completely given up trying to squeeze myself into those Size 10 jeans. But I’m happier, healthier and fitter than I ever have been.

I’ve stopped disappearing.

What if we all agreed to stop disappearing? I look at the young women around me, beautiful, high-achieving, intelligent women all, but what do they do when they gather together? Compare ‘spare tyres’, discuss the latest deprivation diet. I’m done with it, and you should be too.

We are lucky enough to live in a society where, for most people, food is plentiful and work conditions are far healthier than those are grandparents and great-grandparents faced. We mustn’t forget that by instead judging success by the visibility of your collarbones.

We all deserve to take up space. We all deserve to be heard, to be loved, to be respect. Come join me on the plump and happy side. We have all the best snacks.

I ran from my relationship, but I can’t run from my debt

The financial consequences of abusive relationships aren’t often talked about. Especially if you’re not completely ‘out’ about having been in an abusive relationship in the first place. So please take this as my official coming out: I was in an abusive relationship.

I have lost dear friends and treasured family relationships through the breakdown of my marriage. It’s been a long, complicated story, one which is still unfolding now, eighteen months on. I will write about it as fully as I can, at some point, but today I want to focus on one consequence in particular: debt.

Whether due to the news events of the last couple of days, or that fact that my weekly bank balance notifications arrive on a Monday, today has been one of my most difficult in a long time. Tearful, aching, a tight knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I have no money. In fact, I have minus money.

Here’s why: I took out several loans during my relationship. My partner was unable to legally obtain work, I was the main earner, and I was under an enormous amount of pressure to meet legal costs, living costs and eventually wedding costs that were far beyond my means. Just before entering the relationship, I had spent time in a psychiatric unit and was unable to work.

I don’t want to portray myself as a simple victim of circumstance. I have always been impulsive with money; keen to be seen as generous, I used to essentially try to buy friendship and love. Meals out, gifts, rounds of drinks. Whatever it took to be liked.

Fortunately, I have broken out of that cycle. After years of misery (on both sides), I left the relationship. I was earning good money, but living in London was unsustainable, so I took a less lucrative role in a cheaper city. My spending is far more reasonable these days. Most of the time, I’m happier than I ever have been.

But the debt follows, and I don’t know how I can ever get out of it. I make every monthly payment, but the interest grows. Credit cards, loans, overdraft fees. I’ve tried to seek help, but I’m always directed back to my bank for refinancing.

It feels as if there is a huge gap in the way in which we deal with the aftermath of domestic abuse. An Oxford graduate with a good job and apparently limitless self-confidence is not expected to be close to destitution.

I will cut down further and further. I’ll work as hard as I possibly can in the hopes of earning a raise. I will keep my head down and focus. But I will never forgive myself for allowing myself to be taken advantage like that again.

So if you are at risk of falling into similar circumstances, or have already experienced financial abuse, I say this: harden your heart. Don’t let them win. But talk about it. Money is a dirty word in this country, especially for young women. We can only take back our power and confidence if we speak up, share our stories, support each other. Let’s not do this alone.

Getting over the confidence gap

You love your job, but you just don’t feel good enough. Long days in front of your laptop, firing off emails, taking calls, getting through your to-do list with that sense of a job well done. But then you get home, or you take a break because of illness, or you just simply need a holiday. And before you know it, an ache has started in your chest. Your mind is racing, sometimes you could swear that you’re having palpitations. Because quite suddenly, you hear a small but powerful voice inside yourself say “you’re not good enough. You’re a fraud.”

Dusty comes to work with me. How bad can it really be?

Dusty comes to work with me. How bad can it really be?

I’ve always tried to work hard. Work – of whatever form – was an escape for me. Throughout school, I was a bespectacled, spotty, socially awkward dweeb. Terrible at sport due to my acute fear of a football suddenly landing on my face (turned out this was because I needed glasses from a young age, but hadn’t realised, so just assumed that they appeared out of thin air to smack me on the nose), not pretty or confident enough to hang out with the cool kids, the only thing I was good at was behaving in class, doing my homework, and staying in the library after school.

It was much the same at university, although I did let loose a little and throw myself (sometimes literally) into the dating scene. Imagine my delight when I realised I was surrounded by dweebs, and swottiness was actually encouraged!

Then I started work, in a series of jobs I really didn’t enjoy, but I worked hard nonetheless. Get experience on your CV, make connections, and it’ll all work out in the end, I told myself. Eventually I found something I really loved, and last year I made the move to a whole new city, where I’ve met some of the most creative, interesting and kind people I’ve ever known.

I get to live here.

I get to live here.

I work hard because I love my job. It doesn’t feel like work when I’m talking to a charity about how they communicate with donors, or with an academic about their latest research. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing (except, perhaps, more knitting and dog-walking). But if anything, that small voice has got louder.

“You’re a fraud.”

“You’re going to be found out.”

“You don’t deserve this job, this pay.”

“Your friends, partner, colleagues will all find you out.”

Why has that confidence gap grown louder as I’ve (on paper at least) become more successful? I’m reaching senior level in my career, I have an awesome flat and an even more awesome partner, I live in a city I love and I’m able to do so much more with my time. So why do I lie awake at night sometimes, panicking for no particular reason?

I don’t have any answers yet. Maybe it’ll become easier as I get older and continue to mature personally and professionally. Perhaps I will always be an anxious person.

I’d love to know if anyone else out there ever feels like this. Is it specific to women in their late twenties/early thirties? Now we’re meant to be grown-up, do we panic if we don’t feel capable? And how can we address this?

K x

8th March: International Women’s Day – and the anniversary of my failed marriage

Today is my wedding anniversary. I see the calendar counting down to 8th March, and the knot in my stomach grows tighter and tighter.

It’s made of guilt and shame, that knot. Guilt that I left the relationship, guilt that I even let things get that far in the first place. Shame that I went from newly-wed to newly-separated within a few months. Shame that I didn’t speak up when I know how miserable we both were. And shame that I never felt able to tell anyone about that misery.

8th March also marks International Women’s Day, a celebration of the achievements of women throughout history and across the world, and a recognition of the barriers, discrimination and outright violence that women still face.

So it seems as good a day as any to come clean about what I stepped out of. Dreading weekends because they were full of arguments, smashed furniture, screaming. Having a curfew that ensured I came straight from work to home – absolutely no socialising. Having my debit card confiscated because I “couldn’t be trusted with it”, thereby depriving me of financial independence. Years of emotional abuse. And, eventually, physical too. My face shoved into a mirror. A split lip, blood soaked up with a dirty sock thrust at me.

Yet I still tell myself this wasn’t ‘real’ domestic abuse because we were a same-sex couple. Because I told myself – and was repeatedly told by my then-partner – that this was happening because I deserved it. My past mental health difficulties meant I couldn’t be alone, I couldn’t be trusted with things like emotional and financial independence. I’d never find anyone else who would ‘put up’ with me. I was a burden, and we were only together out of sacrifice.

Even now, it still takes an enormous mental gear-change for me to think about those years not as a result of me being an intrinsically terrible person, but as two unhappy, miserable people who shouldn’t have been together in the first place.

This is the first time I’ve really spoken openly and clearly about this. But I won’t be ashamed any longer. I made a mistake in marrying the wrong person, because I felt (for a number of reasons) that that was what I had to do to make myself ‘good’ again. But I was never bad in the first place. Just unhappy, just lost, just alone. No more.

P.S This is also a great time to highlight the fantastic work of charities like Broken Rainbow, who due to the horrendous current political environment were recently facing closure. Please visit their Facebook page if you need support, or can support them through volunteering, advocacy or giving.

Happy talkin’, talkin’ happy talk

It’s #TimeToTalk day. If you haven’t been following the live feed over at Time to Change, get on that pronto. And right now, right here, I am going to talk about mental health. Time to scram if you can’t deal with some psychiatric realness.

I get depressed. Like, really, really depressed. Locked in the bathroom, laying your head against the cold porcelain of the sink, wanting to sleep for eighteen hours a day, worried that your emotional numbness means you’re not human anymore kind of depressed. Since growing out of the hormonal hell that was my teens and early twenties, it’s got much better, but it still visits occasionally.

Several years ago, I was hospitalised and diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder (quite the combo). I was given some tranquillisers, referred to group therapy (on a Monday morning, not great for someone so committed to getting their career off the ground), and waved goodbye.

The NHS is an incredible service, one of our society’s greatest achievements, and something we should absolutely protect. Mental health services are overstretched, especially in densely populated areas with high levels of poverty like Hackney, where I was living at the time. I do not blame the overworked professionals I came into contact with during my time there. But I do think I was allowed to slip out of the net – stamped with a diagnosis or two, given some heavy-duty prescriptions, and off you go.

Luckily, I had some very supportive friends, who put up with some very dramatic behaviour from me. Lots of late-night phone calls, crying down the line, desperate to talk. But I don’t think the diagnoses I received were right. I was depressed, no doubt about that, but my depression was reactive. I’d just finished university, where, although I initially find it hard to adjust socially, I eventually felt at home, surrounded by like-minded people and in the safe, supportive institutional environment.

I didn’t get the degree I wanted. I wasn’t able to get into academic, which was my initial plan. So I moved to London very quickly (too quickly), found the first job I could (even though I had no interest in advertising sales), and threw myself into a whole series of short-lived relationships. I was not doing a very good job of looking after myself.

It all got too much, and that’s how I ended up in hospital. I would be back there only a year later, for a shorter stay this time, but for many of the same reasons. Add a deeply unhealthy relationship into the mix, serious self-esteem issues, and that was pretty much the bulk of the next few years.

I can’t quite pinpoint when things started looking up. But after years of misery, I got out of that relationship – I am a proud member of the Failed Marriage Before 30 Club – my career started picking up, I rebuilt the friendships I had strained so severely before, and I got out of London.

Things aren’t perfect now. I don’t think they ever will be, and that’s okay. I take each day as it comes. Disasters and personal crises still happen, as they do to everyone, but I don’t immediately react in the most dramatic and self-destructive way anymore. I feel sad, distraught even, but I talk to people. To my partner, to my friends, to family, even colleagues. Because – and you will have heard this a lot over the course of the day – talking saves lives. It saved mine, on numerous occasions.

So I won’t hide my mental (ill) health. I will talk openly about it, to whoever wants to listen. If you need someone to talk to, please just drop me a line. The internet is a wonderful thing, especially when you can find solidarity and support at the end of an email, a tweet, a WordPress post.

Look after yourselves and each other.

Kate x



Self care during cancer

My hair is starting to fall out. Whether it’s through the treatment or stress isn’t clear, but it’s falling out in clumps through my fingers every time I take a shower.

It sounds ridiculous, but my hair has always been a big part of my identity. Thick and dark and curly, it’s part of me that’s unique, my trademark. I’ve spent years growing it out, moisturising it with expensive conditioners, buying special combs to keep the curl. And now it’s abandoning ship, I don’t feel like myself anymore.

I’m told it’s not noticeable yet, that I can cover it with a careful haircut and maybe a few scarves and accessories. I certainly don’t have it as bad as most people with this diagnosis. But I’m still scared, and angry, and tired, and frustrated.

So to deal with this, I’ve been focusing on self care. Just small things to keep me going. Here’s a short list of what’s in my Cancer Survival Kit:

  • Cocoa butter
  • Diptyque Doson perfume (the thing I love about scent is that it requires zero effort, and no matter how tired or pale you look, it gives you a lift)
  • Burts Bees pomegranate lip balm
  • Beyonce
  • FKA Twigs
  • Burnt orange nail polish
  • Tom Ford eyebrow pencil (perfect to filling in those new patchy bits)
  • The Sims
  • Vinyl records
  • Aloe Vera juice
  • My best friends
  • My dad
  • My dog

So I guess I’ll just keep riding this out, focusing on the small things and doing my best to get out of bed in the morning.

The C Word

I have cancer. There, I said it.

Stage 2B cervical cancer, in fact. I had my first radiotherapy session last week and I feel like I’ve had the stuffing knocked out of me, but nothing compares to the feeling of guilt I’ve experienced when telling people. I’m afraid of eliciting pity, or worse, tears. I’m young. I’m strong. I’m otherwise healthy. But I put off having a smear test for years, thinking “it’ll never happen to me.” I can tell you now, a few minutes of discomfort down at the GP surgery is a picnic compared to having radioactive waves directed through your pelvis. Or being told you may never be able to have children.

I’ve spoken to several people about the diagnosis since I received it a few weeks ago. Reactions have ranged from shocked to sympathetic, supportive but confused. I’ve encouraged people to ask questions, but there’s still a definite air of nervousness around me, like I’m an invalid that needs to be tiptoed around. So here’s a few myths to bust that I’ve already come across in just a couple of weeks of being A Cancer Sufferer:

  • “But you’re too young to get cancer” (cervical cancer is the most common cancer in women under 35; the last decade has seen an increase in rates amongst younger women)
  • “You’ve had no symptoms” (high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) infection – the cause of my cancer – is linked to almost 100% of cervical cancer cases, but often shows no symptoms until picked up in standard screening)
  • “Could this be because you used to smoke?” (Possibly – an estimated 7% of cervical cancer cases in the UK are linked to smoking, but mine has been caused by HPV. Either way, it was a stupid habit and I should never have started)

[Statistics courtesy of Cancer Research UK]

So there you are. All laid out.

But what if you don’t fit the mould of the Patient Cancer Patient? I’ve known people who have experienced cancer, those who have survived and those who haven’t. All of them, good, decent people, who made and continue to make an enormously positive impact in the lives of those around them.

But what if you feel like you actually deserve this? That, if anyone was going to get it, it should be you, because of the stress you’ve caused others? It’s just the latest in a long line of really crap, life-altering events that have happened over the last few months, for which I can’t help but feel entirely at fault. I feel like the Universe is trying to tell me something: “Stop fighting.” And I’ve had enough.

I’ve had enough of giving in. I’ve made mistakes in my life, for which I’m trying to make amends. But, for the first time in years, now I actually want to fight. I want to keep going. I want a nice, quiet, boring life, but to do that I have to get through the drama.

So here goes. Wish me luck. And for god’s sake, get your smear test.


How beauty got me through divorce and depression: Why make-up is sometimes the best tonic

A good friend recently said to me that I look better now than at any point in the decade she’s known me. This is despite the fact that in the last few months I have:

  • Left my marriage of less than a year
  • Experienced one of the longest and most severe bouts of depression I’ve known
  • Waded through an enormous workload and navigated a tricky step up in my career

Yet, apparently, I look great. How does that work?

(Not actually my dressing table, but I'm still living in hope)

(Not actually my dressing table, but I’m still living in hope)

The thing is, when I get low, I doll up. I put on make-up. I do my hair. I talk to friends. I do yoga, or go for a walk. This is the complete opposite of how I would deal with stress or depression less than a year ago.

I used to hide under the duvet. Overeat. Lash out at anyone who would try to shake me out of my stupor (one of the reasons behind the aforementioned short-lived marriage).

Then I started experimenting with eyeshadow, lipstick, perfume. Hard-living, tough birds like Liz Taylor and Vivienne Leigh became my icons. Even though it didn’t cure how I felt inside, making myself look more like the ‘real me’ – that is, the person I wanted to be, sans the imperfections, the stress, the mental health issues – woke me up. I finally realised why it was called warpaint. I was going into battle with my own demons. Only this time, I had donned bloody gorgeous armour.

Elizabeth Taylor

By investing more in my appearance, I was telling myself that I was worth something. It may sound shallow to some, perhaps even contradictory coming from a committed feminist who maintains that women are held to impossibly high standards of beauty. But I believe that an interest in make-up, hair and perfume is not at all at odds with politics, art, music or any of the other more ‘serious’ pursuits, as deemed by the gender mores to which we are sadly still subject.

Taking an interest in myself is exactly that: I’m using all the tools in my arsenal to get well, to move forward, to be the ‘real me.’

(Special thanks to Babyliss Hot Rollers, Clarins Everlasting Foundation, Sleek iDivine Eyeshadow Palette and Rimmel’s excellent collection of red lipsticks for helping the author look like a bad-ass boss bitch during some spectacularly shitty moments over the last few months.)

Falling in love with London again

I’m writing this from the front seat of a double decker bus, lurching away from the City towards Brixton, where I have found the perfect little room to lay my head whilst I await my wife’s return from Brazil.

Earlier today, I spent my lunch break in Embankment Gardens, reading and enjoying the warmth of the sunshine against the back of my neck.

It’s raining now, but it’s that peculiar early summer rain, with a couple of persistent sunbeams continuing to glint off the tallest buildings, creating a beautiful golden glow through the drizzle.

I am in London, but I’m happy.

Several months ago, we moved to Kent to save money and to start planning our country wedding. We soon fell in love with the gently rolling hills, clean air and sense of community. We never wanted to return to London, but soon realised that work would bring us back here.

At first I was utterly miserable at the thought of returning to the city, a place I associated with the dark and lonely years I spent following university. But now I’m here, it feels different. Lighter. More optimistic. Maybe it’s because my wife is returning home, maybe it’s because my life is far brighter now than it ever has been, but I’m starting to fall in love with London again. I can see it’s beauty now, amidst all the traffic and crowds and costs, and it’s quite something.