Content warning: mental health, eating, weight, food
It’s funny, isn’t it? You have plans, thoughts about what you’re going to do. Then, without warning, they completely change. You find yourself doing something totally different to what you thought.
That’s what happened to me this morning. Given that I listen to lots of current affairs and politically focussed radio, I’ve become aware that today (Saturday 20 May) marks the point at which the most recent iteration of Conservatives have been in power for longer than New Labour. I thought I’d go back to the roots of this blog and write a piece about my reflections on the last 13 years. Instead, I find myself something altogether different.
My morning started like every other. I woke up around 6.30am and checked through all of the usual apps, in the same order I usually do. Facebook memories, Twitter, Instagram, BBC News, and then finishing with Timehop. For those of you who don’t know, Timehop is Facebook memories but for all your social media apps and your phone’s photo library. I’ve been using it for years; in fact, my current non-stop streak is standing at 2153 days. I’ll leave it up to you to determine whether or not that’s impressive.
The first item in my Timehop feed was a picture I took exactly one year ago.
It’s an innocuous picture when you look at it. It’s from a visit I made to my favourite spot in Scarborough: the little cafe at the top of Oliver’s Mount, which is the highest point in Scarborough and boasts spectacular views over the North Sea and the whole town. As you can see, I was enjoying the views with a black Americano coffee and a slice of Bakewell tart, one of my favourite treats.
Without knowing anything else, you’d think this was perfectly fine and pleasant. What you can’t see, however, is the person behind the camera. A person who had just hit rock bottom. A person at the lowest point in their life for a number of years. A person who almost ready to throw in the towel.
As you may have seen from a video I shared last Mental Health Awareness Day in October 2022 was a difficult year for me. I was struggling significantly with my mental health, particularly anxiety that manifested itself around food and my weight. Although, other things often and did contribute. This day was no exception.
Finley, my 10-year-old black cat, had been taken ill with a serious flare-up of his now-managed urinary tract issues, and he had to be admitted to the vet. A worrying time for any pet owner, for sure, but perhaps not enough to warrant the reaction it did from me on that day.
You see, for the months leading up to this day, I was at my lightest weight. Coming in at around 9.5 stone (around 60kg), I wasn’t particularly healthy, regardless of what NHS BMI indicators will tell you. I was barely eating, restricting everything I consumed. The black coffee is an indication of that, as I even came off milk in an effort to further reduce the number of calories I had in a day. Losing more and more weight was my ultimate goal. To what end? I honestly can’t say as I look back. All I know is, back then, every time I stepped onto the scales, I wanted the number to be lower than it was before.
The anxiety I felt around food was so incredibly intense. I couldn’t go out for food, I couldn’t be offered and accept a biscuit at friends’ or families’ homes, nor could I allow myself a small snack, even if my calorie tracking app told me I was “allowed” to. The thing with anxiety is that it’s not just in your head. The physical manifestations are powerful and they’re real. Your heart races and your stomach churns. I would pick the skin around my fingers until the bled. I could never relax and I was always on edge. Shallow and rapid breathing made the episodes of anxiety incredibly difficult to bear and wore me out. It was physically exhausting to go through. Couple that with the fact I wasn’t consuming enough energy to get me through the day (around 1000 calories was my average intake at that time), it’s a wonder I managed to function at all.
The other long-standing challenge I was facing at the time was my work. Again, I covered this in the video I made last year, but it’s worth briefly reminding you here. I love the place I worked and I love the people I worked with. It’s no exaggeration to say that just by their mere presence in my life, I was able to get through this period. But I hated the work I was doing. Not because I was bad at it or because my manager made unrealistic demands on me. But because the imposter syndrome I still suffer from made me feel like I couldn’t do anything. I was a prisoner to every negative thought or feeling I ever had about my performance at work. I constantly doubted myself and sought reassurance from those around. When it came to making decisions, I was paralysed, unable to decide the simplest of things. “What colour should this text be?”, “Have I spelt that word correctly?”, “Am I sure that this thing I’ve been doing correctly for years, is actually right?”.
Just as with the anxiety and constant focus on my weight, appearance and the food I ate (or didn’t eat, as would be more appropriate here), living in a constant state of doubt and negativity devours your energy and spirit. You feel like you’re in a hole, unable to find any means of escape. Exacerbated be a protracted recruitment process for my current job, it felt like every route I tried to find to get myself to a better place was closed off to me. I was left feeling isolated, trapped and horrendously alone.
The morning this picture was taken, my direct manager was away on annual leave, meaning I had to send a WhatsApp message to the owner of the company I worked for, letting him know that I would be arriving to work late as I had to take Finley to vet due to his poor health. To be fair, it wasn’t unusual for me to communicate directly with the owner, as we shared (and I hope still do) a really healthy and positive relationship. Of course, they said it was no problem at all. They knew about the challenges I was facing and had a huge amount of sympathy and empathy for me.
I got back from dropping Finley off, and I remember sitting in my living room, listening to the silence. For anyone suffering from any mental illness, silence is the worst possible thing. It provides the space for negative thoughts to manifest themselves at a startling pace. “This is it, Finley is going to die. How could this year get any worse? Why is this all happening to me?” I remember thinking. I was trying to bring myself to go and collect my bag and set off to work, fighting back every bone in my body telling me to stay at home and hide away. How could I possibly face people in the office? How could I possibly put myself through a day of self-doubt, while worrying that the second biggest love in my life (after my wife) may not ever come home again? I didn’t want to let my anxiety win. I didn’t want to give in. I had to.
I picked up my phone and called the owner. He asked how Finley was doing, and I explained everything. I remember saying “if it’s okay, I’m not going to come in today. I’m really struggling at the moment.” Even as I recall this conversation, I’m finding it hard to fight back the emotion. Their kindness will stay with me forever. They replied and said “I know you are. It’s okay. Of course you don’t have to come into work. You can be the very first person to take one of our new duvet days. I’m worried about you. Take today to look after yourself. My friend runs the vets where Finley is, so he’s in really safe hands. He’ll be fine”.
Those were the words I needed to hear. As I fought through the tears and inability to put together a coherent sentence, I managed to mumble a “thank you”, and we said goodbye. Their kindness and understanding was, I think, what I’d needed to hear. I didn’t need to be strong or put on a front. I was allowed to be vulnerable. I was allowed to be fragile and damaged. To pinch a phrase, it was okay to not be okay.
I phoned my now-wife to let her know what was happening and decided that the day would be spent doing things that made me happy, even if to enjoy just an hour or two of escapism from the troubles I was experiencing. So, I took myself on the four-mile walk from my house up to my favourite cafe to enjoy my favourite views.
Anyone who’s been to the cafe at Oliver’s Mount, or even just the Mount itself will know just how peaceful and serene it is. I needed serenity. I needed calm.
When I stepped up to the counter to place my order, I was acutely conscious that the person serving me must’ve wondered what on earth had been happening. Despite my best efforts to freshen up, I was flushed with puffy eyes, carrying the temporary battle scars of my fight with mental illness. The truth is, they probably didn’t even notice or if they did, they probably didn’t care. The cafe was quite busy as it was a beautiful day. They definitely had other things on their mind. I stared for what felt like hours at the selection of cakes. I wanted something sweet, but the food-conscious part of my brain was holding me back. I couldn’t possibly allow myself to have something that would take me over my “snack allowance” for the day. I fought back that thought and ordered a slice of Bakewell tart.
As I sat with the coffee and cake you see pictured above, I just took in the scenery. Of course, I thought about everything that had led me to this moment. I was thinking about Finley, hoping and praying that he would be okay. But for the hour or so I sat there, I felt like I was confronting my challenges. I decided that I needed to do something material to help overcome them. I knew that that day would be a watershed moment in my journey. I knew that I could no longer carry on as if I was going to get better on my own. I knew that I never wanted to feel that way again. Later that day, I arranged a different course of therapy that eventually set me on the road to recovery.
Fast-forward to exactly a year on, and it’s difficult to put into words how different my situation is now.
Finley is doing great. I have a new job. I successfully completed by CBT. I’m off my medication. I’ve stopped weighing myself every day. I’ve stopped counting calories. I’ve stopped having regular anxiety episodes. If a year ago was night, then today is day. I did what I didn’t even entertain as remotely possible. I overcame my challenges and am infinitely happier for it.
Now, I’m not going to sit here and pretend like everything is perfect. Of course, it isn’t. I still worry about my weight and how I look, always with one eye over my shoulder clocking the spectre of weight gain, rather than two. I still suffer from imposter syndrome and often feel down about work-related things. I still have an on-off relationship with nicotine, in that I still rely on it when I feel like I’m starting to slip back onto the downward path back to where I was. But the difference is that these are little things now. They don’t own me; I own them. They don’t consume my life and I’m not defined by them.
For anyone reading this who is struggling with anything at the moment, I want you to know that there is a solution and there is a way through. No matter how bad you feel things are, they will always get better. It’s just a matter of seeking help and support, and working your way through each of your challenges bit by bit.
As I like to say at the start of the church services I lead:
No matter the challenges you’re experiencing, every day or week you complete is one day or week closer to their resolution.