charmion-strongwoman

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

roses

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.

52de615c4d86ctimetotalk

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

 

 

vinyl

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.

 

8667148_1

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.

20140624-201727-73047939.jpg

Guest Post for Found on the Underground: Embankment

The following is a guest post a wrote for the rather brilliant Found on the Underground. Huge thanks to Sarah Karacs for giving me the opportunity to write this.

Selling Point

Not only is the tube stop a major transport hub of central London, it is – more famously – something of a magnet for lost Spanish school groups. Stepping out of the tube carriage onto the platform, you’ll be met by the cheery newsagent as he guards his treasure trove of sweets and fags. Like a Zone 1 Smaug, he caresses the Crunchies lovingly with his eyes, darting suspicious glances at anyone who even dares to browse through his Precious Things.

Making your way up the slightly-too-narrow stairs and into the main hall of the station, you’ll notice that inspirational quotes have been lovingly written out onto a standard-issue TFL notice board, presumably to give a glimmer of hope to the otherwise miserable commuters filing past every morning.

As you leave the station, you’ll come across the best florist in London, run by the happiest Cockney woman you’ll ever meet. She sells beautiful bouquets, roses and pot plants – perfect if you’re looking for something to liven up your desk or if you have inadvertently insulted your spouse’s cooking and need an emergency token of apology.

kiosk

Fuel Up

Head up Villiers Street and you’ll find an array of options for the hungry carnivore; Herman ze German offers the best sausages this side of Duesseldorf, with perfectly crunchy, oil-free baked fries and just the right amount of spicy currywurst. A couple of doors down isLupita, a good spot for a sit-down burrito or tasty Mexican salad.

If you can cope with the crowds of the Strand, wander on down to the Port House, a hidden gem for candlelit tapas and wine, and the speediest and friendliest service in the area.

In a rush? Avoid the usual chain stores – Pret, Itsu, Eat, of which there are dozens – and instead grab a salad or soup from Korean street food-inspired Kimchi, which also offers bench-style seating to catch up with friends over plum tea.

10356503_10152416477871240_1884229308_n

Broaden Your Mind

Got an hour to kill? Check out the RSA on John Adam Street for free lunchtime and evening lectures on a variety of topics, from the rise of alcohol-related crime to the history of cultural values in Maoist China.

The National Gallery is just a hop, skip and a jump away at Trafalgar Square, providing ample opportunity for art-lovers to admire the Holbein’s and Van Dykes. When in need of a coffee break, visit the National Café or Espresso Bar for a pit stop.

Alternatively, cross Hungerford Bridge to the South Bank and visit the South Bank Centre, which often has outdoor exhibitions and events, especially in the summer months. Bookworms should pop into Foyles underneath the Royal Festival Hall for a browse, especially if you’re looking for an off-the-beaten track guidebook or history of London (Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London: A Biography’ is a particular favourite).

cheese

Cut a Rug

Now to the fun bit: partying. One of the best but often overlooked hang-outs in the area isRetro Bar – one of the oldest gay bars in London. Cheap and cheerful with a mixed, laid-back crowd, it’s a great place to kick off a night out.

For those you hankering for a spot of Mother’s Ruin, head over to Gordon’s Wine Bar on Villiers Street or the Princess of Wales next door. Great gin and tonics, as long as you don’t mind the crowds elbowing their way to the bar. If it’s a sunny day and you can nab a space outside, it’s definitely worth it.

Depending on your persuasion, you may decide to pay a visit to Heaven to show off your moves and maybe catch the eye of that lucky someone. Be warned, their foam parties can be lethal – this author almost drowned in six feet of chemical fluff and had to be rescued by a glamorous drag queen in 10 inch heels. It was awesome.

Once you’re all partied out, run down to Trafalgar Square, dip you toes into the fountain, clamber atop the lions and breathe in the night air. Watch the night buses speed by, the hen nights stagger past and remember – this city is yours. Enjoy it.

wine bar

Enjoying our honeymoon on the beach with Dusty Dog

Eating Better, or How I’m Trying to Avoid Being a Smug Killjoy

Enjoying our honeymoon on the beach with Dusty Dog

Enjoying our honeymoon on the beach with Dusty Dog

Here we are, at the end of March 2014. It’s been an eventful month; my partner’s 35th, followed by our wedding the day after, a perfect honeymoon in Margate (we stayed here, and would highly recommend it for anyone looking for a seaside getaway), my birthday, the arrival of equal marriage and a beautiful Mother’s Day with my wonderful Mum. But this has been only the latest chapter in the life-affirming, perception-shifting, mental overhaul that has marked the last six months.

So what’s changed? Really, everything and nothing. I’m still the same person, living in the same place, going to the same job everyday. But my outlook has changed dramatically. Last September, Wifey and I moved to Hastingleigh, Kent, to support my Mum after a period of illness over the summer and to start saving towards the life we want. At first, the move was a bit of a shock. After living in London for several years, living miles away from the nearest train station, bus stop or corner shop seemed so alien. It didn’t help that within weeks of our move, huge storms swept across the South East, uprooting trees and cutting out power. On top of that, a 3+ hour commute each day seemed overwhelming. I allowed myself to become submerged in stress, getting into arguments with my partner, struggling to concentrate at work and feeling utterly, completely exhausted.

My outlook had to change. I started reading for pleasure again, something I hadn’t had time to do for months. I devoured novels, favourites from childhood, recommended reads from friends, anything I could get my hands on. I also began reading up on health and nutrition; I’ve struggled with my weight since leaving university, through both over-eating (especially sugary or salty foods) and lack of exercise. After reading a few articles on the amount of sugar in the average Western diet, I was inspired to start cutting out refined sugar wherever I could. No sweets, no white bread, no sugar-laden breakfast cereals. Just real food – whole grains, vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, natural yoghurt. And lots and lots of water.

The most surprising thing about this new regime was how I was actually eating more. If I felt hungry at 10am (unsurprising considering how I now eat breakfast at 5.45 every morning!), I’d have a snack; some nuts, a piece of fruit, maybe a glass of semi-skimmed milk. I have more energy now than I ever have before. My skin, hair and nails all look much better. I’ve also lost a tonne of weight (almost 2 stone), but that wasn’t why I did it, just a positive side effect really. My mood also improved immeasurably, probably because I was feeling so much better about myself and my body.

I still take my regular medication and think I will continue to do so for a while yet, but changing my lifestyle like this has been one of the best things I’ve done for both my mental and physical health. It hasn’t gone unnoticed either; my partner tells me how much my mood has improved, friends and colleague comment on how much healthier I look and I’m actually starting to like how I look in photos now, rather than hiding from the camera or despairing at photos I’m tagged in!

This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and I know it can make me sound like a smug killjoy at times, but it’s been really good for me and by extension, those around me. Good eating, exercise and laughter has become part of my everyday life. I’m looking forward to continuing on this journey and seeing where it takes me.

K x

P.S If you are interested in finding out more about the impact of sugar in modern diets and how you can cut down on refined sugar, check out this book. I’m also following the Harcombe Diet at the moment, which is more restrictive and not for everyone, but I’d love to hear of other people’s experiences of it.