Time to Talk Day 2023

#TimeToTalkDay is a day of conversations about mental health. It’s a day to check in with others, share experiences, and most of all, to challenge stigma around mental illness. Even though the Time to Change campaign is no more, the day is still marked by Mind, Rethink Mental Illness, Co-op, and of course, those Champions from the original campaign, albeit under different banners.

I joined the campaign in 2017. I was a very different person back then, and in a very different place mentally. Still unwell, on antidepressants and in therapy, very unsure of myself, and fairly new to being open about my mental health issues, I wasn’t strong enough to campaign fully yet, so I started small. I wrote an email to my friends and colleagues at work, some of whom knew about my issues, some who didn’t. Here’s what I wrote:

Hi all,

Today is Time to Talk Day. Many of you already know this is a cause that means a lot to me. It’s a few years now since I made the decision to be open about my mental health issues, and I have never regretted it, not once. When I was first diagnosed with depression, age 21 and on the verge of failing my final year at university, I didn’t even tell my parents. Finally, thanks to campaigns like Time to Talk and Mind’s 1 in 4, the stigma is disappearing, and the isolation I used to feel is firmly in the past.

We all have some knowledge of mental health issues, it’s part of our daily job, so I won’t bore you with the details of the exhaustion, shame, and frustration my conditions cause me. Instead I want to use today to say thank you.

Thank you for not judging. Thank you for noticing when I’m having a bad day and checking I’m OK. Thank you for sharing stories of people with similar issues so I know I’m not alone. Thank you for seeing me as me, not as a mental illness. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for helping me feel “normal” (whatever that is). It makes a massive difference and it’s what today is all about.

Kind regards,

Sharon

I agonised over that email, and was terrified to press send. But of course, my colleagues’ and friends’ response was as kind as ever. It gave me the courage to keep speaking out, having those conversations, and challenging stigma. To join my local hub, where I found more friends with inspiring stories. And then eventually, to start this blog and social media accounts dedicated to those very same things.

You see, Time to Talk Day, and conversations about mental health, can make a massive difference. They can give strength, courage, and support. They can change people’s minds and beliefs. They can create a ripple that spreads out and touches more hearts and minds than you ever thought possible.

This Time to Talk Day, I hope you find the courage to be open, speak out, or just ask a loved one how they are. And if you’re not sure what to say or do, you won’t go wrong by starting with those things I was grateful for back in 2017, because those were things that helped give me the strength to recover, and keep fighting to stay in recovery: friendship, understanding, and love.

Thank you for not judging. Thank you for noticing when I’m having a bad day and checking I’m OK. Thank you for sharing stories of people with similar issues so I know I’m not alone. Thank you for seeing me as me, not as a mental illness. Thank you for making me laugh. Thank you for helping me feel “normal” (whatever that is). It makes a massive difference and it’s what today is all about.

If you’d like know more, click here: https://timetotalkday.co.uk/

Swimwear and scars

Content warning: this post mentions sexual assault.

A friend shared a story recently about her struggle with showing her scar in a bikini. It was really inspiring and it got me thinking. I don’t have scars like my friend, well not external ones. Yet it occured to me that I’ve never worn a bikini. Definitely not since puberty, at least.

I suppose wearing a bikini is the ultimate in self confidence, in body confidence. My Instagram feed is full of beautiful fat women wearing two pieces. But since my recovery, I haven’t bought any swimwear at all.

Then I remembered the last time I wore a swimsuit on holiday. Way back when I was straight size, but not really any more confident in my body. And I remember the man who leaned forward and tried to put his hand down the front of that swimsuit, and my friend and I fighting him off.

I remember my therapist asking if I subconsciously binged to make myself bigger to avoid the groping, the unwanted comments and propositions. And it made sense. I feel less visible when I’m fat. I am less visible. My body is certainly less sexualised by strangers.

We’re all conditioned to want to be thinner, more attractive. But whenever I complied and lost weight, my prize was unwanted attention from men who believed they had the right to see me as an object. To stare openly at my breasts. To grope. To shout at me in the street.

Losing weight was supposed to be all my dreams come true. It was supposed to bring happiness, success, everything I ever wanted.

What it actually brought me was a feeling of unease, of not feeling safe. The expense of buying a whole new wardrobe for what I now know would be a temporary body, because my real body and my eating disorder always fought back. It brought a constant hunger. It never brought that confidence the models had in the ads.

So I tried to fake it. I put on a swimsuit. And look what happened.

I don’t know when the feeling of unease began. Maybe with being viewed and treated as an adult women from the age of 12 or 13. Or with the house party in my early teens when a boy kicked in the door to the bathroom, pushed me down on the floor and ripped my knickers off before I managed to get away.

As young girls we’re taught to feel pride in being sexually attractive to men. And so I did. But I also felt afraid. And in the midst of all this were those eating disorder thoughts of being ugly, and fat, and hating myself, and not understanding why men would find me attractive at all.

It’s all so fucked up.

Looking back on my therapist’s question years later, with all that I’ve learned about diets and restriction and how our bodies fight back, I don’t think I was deliberately making myself fat. My body was just responding to famine in the way it is biologically programmed to. Each successive period of weight loss, whatever the reason for it, has inevitably been followed by a period of weight gain, where I ended up bigger than I started.

In many ways I wish my body’s set point weight were lower, that I’d recovered into a straight size body that fit better in the world. But another part of me is glad that I’m fat. And yet another part of me isn’t particularly bothered about my body’s size at all.

Because through body positivity, I found body neutrality, and I’m starting to view my body according to how it feels and what it does, not how it looks. I may not love it. I may never love it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to what it needs and treat it with respect.

I don’t know if I’ll ever reach the point where I put on a bikini. But I’d like to think that if I do, I’ll do it without fear.

Stolen Years

Allowing myself to feel,

To cry,

To realise just how much you stole from me.

Peace, inner calm,

The strength to be myself.

The courage to admit just how terrified I was.

Sapping my self-esteem

Till I felt worthless, unworthy of any joy.

The feeling of dread

That they would all realise I was a fraud,

Not knowing what I was doing.

Seeming calm but completely out of control,

Wanting it to end,

But not knowing how.

Eating down the sadness,

Throwing up the fear,

Not knowing why

But knowing it was wrong.

Knowing they’d be horrified

If they ever knew.

Trapped in the cycle

Year after year.

So many years stolen.

So few remain.

Time to make them count.

Battling the Black Dog

It’s back. It’s barking and growling and scratching at the door, trying to get in, and I’m trying so hard not to let it.

But it’s exhausting. I’m so tired, constantly wanting to sleep. Yet some nights I lie awake. Not thinking or fretting or stressing, really. I just lie there with my eyes closed, waiting for sleep to come.

There’s no inspiration. Just a couple of weeks ago I was posting, writing, creating. Now I’m silent, unmotivated. I have nothing to say. No positive stories to share.

The tears. Not a day has gone by without tears for a week now. They flow silently, without fanfare, as I sit here, waiting for the feeling to pass.

They say Churchill called it the black dog. Sometimes that’s how it feels. A big black dog following me around like a shadow. But sometimes, like now, it’s an all-consuming fog that blocks out the light, turning everything a deep, dull grey. It makes everything quiet, eerie, it blurs sharp lines. It invades my brain and leaves that foggy, too. Unable to see clearly, focus, see the sun hiding above the clouds.

Deep down, a part of me knows that hope and joy are out there, but no matter how hard I look, how far I reach out, I can’t find it. The fog is hiding it from view, hoping I forget about it, waiting for me to sink further into myself instead.

I don’t want to give the fog what it wants. I don’t want to let the black dog in.

I’m arming myself.

I’ve upped the nutrition-rich foods. So what if I ordered them online and bought some of them pre-prepared? It’s all I can manage right now, and nutrition is nutrition. There’s no point forcing myself to the farm shop to buy soup ingredients, then letting them rot because I don’t have the energy or motivation to chop and cook them.

I’m taking my painkillers because no-one should have to deal with the double whammy of pain and fog. And the lower pain means I can do a bit of exercise each day to boost my mood.


I’ve reached out and called a friend.


I’m watching comedies to reassure myself I can still laugh.


And I’m writing this, getting it out, reducing its power.


And still the fog descends, smothering me in its cloak of darkness.


And still I fight on.


I’ve been here before and won. I will prevail.

Silence

I thought I’d learnt to trust you
That love would set me free
But how could that be possible
When I was hiding an ED?

Concealing frequent binges
Fat, disgusting, greedy me
How could anybody love this?
A woman hiding an ED

My dirty little secret
I couldn’t let anyone see
The fat pig living inside me
So I kept hiding my ED

I said I’d leant to trust you
I was lying to you and me
Because I couldn’t really trust you
If I was hiding an ED

Was it you I never trusted?
Or was the lack of trust in me
Too scared of being vulnerable
To stop hiding my ED

Our relationship never stood a chance
How could you truly ever know me
When I hid all that self loathing
With my binge stashes and ED

No, you never really knew me
And there’s no-one to blame but me
I couldn’t bring myself to trust you
Enough to tell you about my ED

So now I’m speaking loud and proud
About you, my ED and me
In the hope that someone listening
Trusts someone enough to disclose their ED

If you’re worried about your relationship with food, don’t suffer in silence. Please tell someone close and your GP.

COVID, anxiety, and floating

October 10th. World Mental Health Day. I leave the house and go to a local event. Have a great time. Make plans to see friends again soon. The sun is shining and I’m feeling good about getting back to “normality”.

One day later, October 11th. I go to my first face to face external meeting since March 2020. October 14th, the COVID app pings me – I was exposed to COVID that day. October 18th, the cough starts.

One work meeting. That’s all it took to make me ill. The test results were mixed. Over the next 3 weeks, I had 1 negative PCR, and 2 negative but 3 positive lateral flow tests. But the symptoms were pretty clearly mild COVID. The cough, breathlessness, brain fog. It just didn’t feel like a cold or flu. I was so, so grateful to be vaccinated and have got off lightly when so many have not.

Finally the symptoms started to clear, and it was time to re-enter the world. And I struggled. Really struggled. Burnout and anxiety had raised their unpleasant little heads again. I’d been procrastinating a lot since lockdown 1. I’d had to take time off work in the Spring, but had been just about managing since. Now suddenly I was having anxiety attacks for the first time in years. The world hadn’t felt safe for a long time, but now it seemed I’d had personal confirmation it wasn’t. I didn’t want to go back outside.

Line illustration of turtle with head and legs retracted into its shell

It was time to take a step back before things got any worse. So I’ve revisited the techniques that helped me years ago, when my anxiety was at its worst. The counsellor I had at the time introduced me to Dr Claire Weekes’ approach: Face, Accept, Float, Let time pass, lending me her book “Self-Help for Your Nerves”. Everyone is different, and everyone’s experience is unique, but this was what worked for me at that time, freeing me from the physical symptoms of anxiety for years. Until a worldwide pandemic pushed me back to the brink…

Here’s what the four stages mean to me, and how I’ve applied them this week:

FACE the anxiety. Don’t run away from it. If you can’t face up to it, you can’t heal.

I’ve finally acknowledged that the anxiety is back, and I need to stop procrastinating and deal with it.

ACCEPT it – stop fighting it. Accept that you are the only person who can cure it, and that the only way out is through.

I’ve accepted that the uncomfortable feelings are back and I’m just going to have to live with them for a little while as I face the outside world.

FLOAT through the sensations. The idea is that swimmers relax and float when they get into trouble, because fighting and tensing up just makes you drown.

I’ve been doing the things I need to do. Leaving the house, making calls, looking at plans for the future. Not fighting the feelings, just relaxing into them and getting on with things.

LET TIME PASS. Anxiety attacks always end eventually, but they end sooner if you don’t feed them by fighting them. And anxiety itself doesn’t go away overnight, but it will gradually improve if you keep practising.

Yes, all that has caused anxiety, but thinking about doing the things and procrastinating caused more. And once I’d finished the task, the anxiety went away for a little while.
I don’t know how long I’ll be feeling this way this time, but I know it will pass. Because it did before.

And so I’m just going to keep plodding on and try to stop getting in my own way until I feel calm again. I won’t get it right and succeed every time, but I’ll keep trying, and I will get there.

Stay safe everyone. And if you’re struggling with anxiety, too, I highly recommend the book.

Burnout

I’ve been absent from social media for a little while. This post explains why.

Basically, my real, offline, life has has been taking all I have to give lately.

Today has been a pretty good day. I’ve started a week of annual leave, met up with a friend, and accomplished a couple of tasks I haven’t felt up to recently. I have newly prescribed painkillers in the cupboard for high pain days and most importantly, time to rest.

But I promised myself that I would always be honest on this blog, so here’s what I wrote at 2 am this morning in an attempt to quieten the thoughts in my head and sleep…

I’m tired.

Tired of trying to fix things in a system that’s broken beyond repair.

Tired of people asking for my help and having nothing to offer but a sympathetic ear.

Tired of people being failed, written off, thrown away because they don’t fit into a neat little box.

Tired of forcing myself not to care as a self-preservation mechanism.

Tired of sleepless nights because I do care. A lot.

Tired of being expected to go that extra mile by people who would never do the same for me.

Tired of constantly enforcing boundaries because they’re not respected.

Tired of being in pain.

Tired of working slouched on the sofa because sitting upright hurts too much.

Tired of not being able to take sick leave to rest and recover because if I do, I’ll be put on report.

Tired of being stuck at home, still in lockdown even though it’s over.

Tired of waiting, for appointments, treatments, diagnoses, help that never comes.

Tired of being too tired to cook the dinner I actually want to eat.

Tired that exercising for my mental health makes me hurt more.

Tired of being tired.

Tired of having no energy for the things that bring me joy: creating, social media, campaigning, seeing friends.

Let’s face it: I’m way beyond tired. I’m exhausted. I’m burnt out.

Breaking my silence

This week marks a year since I finally had THAT conversation with my mother. The one where I finally told her the secret I had kept for forty years…

I told my parents about my diagnosis of BED a few years ago, when I started treatment. We had a few conversations about what it involved, and they did their best to understand. The conversations mostly focused around practicalities – my need to eat regular meals and snacks, for example, so they understood why my eating habits had changed.

I remember my dad struggling, and confusing my treatment with a conventional weight loss diet. I remember my mum thinking that time I ate 2 mince pies late one evening was a binge, and trying to explain to her that a binge was way, way more than that. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure they will ever truly understand. It’s taken me decades to, and I was the one with the illness. But at least they finally knew I had BED, and was trying to get better.

What we never discussed was when it all started, and that I had kept my shameful secret from them since I was eight years old. Why not? Well, for one, they never asked. But mostly, I didn’t want to upset them. I didn’t want them to blame themselves. I had no idea whether they had even noticed. But that’s traditionally the way my family functioned. A lot went unsaid back when I was a child.

By this time last year, I was finally ready to open up. I had been campaigning against mental health stigma for a while. I wanted to be more open about BED, my most shameful and secret diagnosis. It was the one which carried the most stigma, the least spoken about, the most misunderstood, the one I could find very little about online, and therefore the one it was most important to speak out about.

And this was about to happen. BEAT had decided to make BED the focus of eating disorder awareness week 2021. I was contributing my lived experience towards the campaign and in the process of deciding whether to share my story publicly as part of it. But the idea of my parents finding out accidentally if I did? It was too much to bear.

So on this week a year ago, I finally told my mother that when I was around eight years old, I started stealing food from the pantry. Food I hoped wouldn’t be noticed. And that these behaviours and more continued for the rest of my childhood, all through my adulthood, until I finally had treatment and started working towards recovery in my forties.

It turns out, I had done an excellent job of hiding it. She had no idea. We had a frank and open conversation about it, and some events from my childhood. I was able to tell her that she wasn’t to blame. That I was just trying to cope in the only way I knew how. Because she did ask the question I’m sure most parents ask: is it my fault?

It wasn’t an easy conversation. It took an immense amount of strength to finally say these things out loud. And it took an emotional toll to process it. But the only thing I regret about that conversation is that it didn’t happen years earlier. Because that conversation was one of the most pivotal moments of my life to date.

From that point, I could be honest, open, and loud about my struggles with BED. I could try to help break down the secrecy, help others realise they’re not alone. Because I felt so, so alone for so long. I could help people realise that what they were doing isn’t wrong or shameful, it’s an illness which can be treated. I could show people that recovery is possible. I could spread hope. And soon after, the BED Post blog was born.

And if someone you know has told you they have BED and you can’t work out why you didn’t notice the signs? This is why: my mother never knew because I didn’t want her to. The same with my father, my sister, my friends, and the men I have had relationships with, including my ex-husband. I became very good at keeping people at arms length. At hiding binges, and the evidence of binges.

There’s still a misconception that eating disorders are just attention seeking. I’m telling this story to show that the opposite is true. You don’t keep something secret for decades if you’re looking for attention.

BED is an incredibly lonely illness. But it doesn’t need to be. With more awareness and understanding, with less shame and stigma, with more training, research and evidence-based treatment, people’s lives could be changed for the better. People wouldn’t wait 40 years to have THAT conversation. Or never have it at all.

Have decades of eating my feelings down made me emotionally illiterate?

I grew up believing feelings were bad. I was told I was too emotional, oversensitive, that I needed not to take things so personally. So I stopped talking about feelings, and did my best not to have them. Bingeing became my go-to when I needed to put a lid on those pesky, unwanted emotions.

The only problem is, when you don’t feel emotions how can you figure out what they are? If you don’t talk about them, how can you learn to label them, know what their purpose is? Over the past few months, I’ve been noticing clues that this is a skill I lack.

I recently did an online course where we were asked to name emotions we wanted to feel more. I was stumped. I really struggled to come up with the required three words.

I’ve been more anxious about leaving the house during lockdown, but my anxiety has presented itself differently to last time I had it. I found myself procrastinating and putting off going out. It took months to figure out why I was doing it.

I’ve been crying a lot at little things lately. I don’t know why. I can’t label what I’m feeling. I don’t know what’s wrong, or how to fix it. All I can do is allow myself to feel whatever it is, and not fall back into old habits.

There are some emotions I can label. The big ones. Anger, sadness, frustration, love. And joy! An emotion which has come with recovery. When I first started recovering, every emotion, including joy and happiness, came in an overpowering wave which was expressed through tears.

Finally, I’m at a point where I’m not completely overwhelmed by or scared of emotions. But I am confused by them. I know the words, the labels, for feelings. But that knowledge is abstract. I don’t truly know what they feel like in my body. And if I can’t label my emotions, how can I work out why I’m feeling them or what they are for?

I know that trusting myself and my body is my path to recovery. But it seems like I still have work to do. I need to go back to the beginning and pay attention to my moods, look at an emotion wheel and label how I’m feeling. Learn what those moods are trying to tell me. Then use that knowledge to work out what I do next, so that I continue to grow and evolve. Because what use is recovery if I don’t?

Learning to live with anger

Of all the emotions I buried with food, anger was the one that scared me the most. It seemed so destructive, so terrifying. I had this image of myself exploding with fury and releasing vitriol on such a scale that I would destroy everyone and everything around me. This, of course, was to be avoided at all cost.

Bingeing became my go-to method to prevent this. I literally swallowed the anger down and buried it under a pile of food. And I kept burying it for nearly 4 decades. That’s a lot of unfelt anger!

Obviously, this was something that needed to be unpacked in therapy. I learned that the world would not end if I lost my temper. I learned that anger itself is not a bad thing. I learned that I had been turning my anger, my vitriol, on myself and my body, and that wasn’t fair or right.

Bit by bit, I allowed myself to feel that anger. Releasing a small, safe amount at a time. I learned other ways to deal with it – exercise, screaming, writing. Yet anger still scares me, and is still the most likely emotion to cause overeating.

There was a lot to feel angry about last week. The UK Government’s new ob***ity strategy, which is so harmful for people like me. The awful situation in The Middle East. And on a personal level, preparing to return to a stressful job which impacts my health after a period of leave.

It was all too much. I needed a break. I took a couple of days away from social media. I overate a little, but knowingly, and without guilt. I had my hair done. I watched TV, but avoided the news. I feel much better for it.

One day, I will take anger in my stride, but I’m not quite there yet.