Category Archives: anxiety

On Quitting Alcohol

I bloody love a drink. I do. I love being elevated above my life of an evening, switched to a different mode. A mode that doesn’t have negative thoughts or see any obstacles in front of my desires. I love the way tequila feels. People are funnier, the air is sweeter with booze. There ain’t no denying. 

I don’t bloody love the next day though. Or the shitty broken sleep, waking up at 4am to the sound of my blood pumping hard in my throat, wondering how my heart has the muscle to keep going. The constant peeing. The eye bags. The not being able to get out of bed the next day. The feeling that my head is stuck in a vice. The bank balance after a bender. The sheer disgust at oneself. The hundreds of lost weekends. The not getting stuff done because of the fucking sauce. 

I have always wondered what I would have done with all the hangover days and lost weekends if I hadn’t been hungover. Would I have written more? Read more? Seen my family more? Would I have got really good at say, erm, rock climbing? I certainly would have eaten fewer dodgy fried chicken burgers at 3am. 

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I haven’t drunk alcohol for 12 weeks. Not a drop. Ok – let’s be honest – I tasted someone else’s Old Fashioned on holiday, tasted it with the tip of my tongue, and it was glorious. But I’ve chosen to put alcohol on hold for the foreseeable future, because it has been engulfing my spare time. Clouding my ideas. Distracting me from what is good and real.  

Taken from ‘Hooked’ at The Science Gallery, 2018.

Over the summer, after a particularly anxiety fuelling placement as part of my nurse training, I relapsed into a deep bout of depression. This one was slow and gnawing. I felt like a big sloth, dragging my heavy leaden body through life, with my eyes practically closed. Walking to the station in the morning felt like I was heaving a mountain behind me. Alcohol filled the void, threw a bit of colour in the mix. It released the pleasure chemicals I needed in my brain (aka dopamine), stimulated my reward centre, offering the satisfaction that I so desperately needed. It also took over entire weekends, meaning I didn’t have to actually address how I was feeling, or what I needed to do in my life to make it better. It was slowing me down and throwing me off. I’ve dealt with depression and hopelessness enough to know that during these foggy times, making a teeny change can be the catalyst to heaving me out of the hole of perpetual self pity.

After one too many all nighters, and yet another Sunday spent unable to move on the sofa, I had to ask myself – what is the point of alcohol? And what is it doing to my life? I knew that I had to stop getting carried away on the fizz, no matter how jolly the sound of the second bottle popping will always be. 

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This might sound like I’m on a one way trip to Bore Ville. Proper Bore-asaurus territory. But as part of being human, I have to let go of worrying about people thinking I’m dull or whatever, because this is me and I have to live with myself and the consequences of my tendency to binge. The thing is, that alcohol has historically fuelled my depression, filled me with all kinds of regret, fucked up my sleep and made me less able to do nice things for myself. 

I’ve quit alcohol before, and I’ve spent lots of time over the years trying to moderate my drinking. It works at first. But gradually I slip back into the routine of getting shit faced at every opportunity. Friends Birthdays are a given. Then there are exam celebrations, weddings, bottomless brunches, dinners, flights, the fact that it is Friday, or Thursday for that matter. It turns out that in my life, there is almost ALWAYS an excuse to get drunk. 

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Recently I had a counselling session with an amazing ex-mental health nurse. She dropped the A-bomb and asked if I thought I was an alcoholic. It’s funny that she asked, because I had been silently mulling this over. I don’t see myself as having a physical addiction to alcohol, that’s for people who have vodka on their cornflakes, right? I’ve never had withdrawal symptoms, unless a three day hangover is considered to be a sort of withdrawal process. But I have been a problem drinker. A binger. Someone who uses the excuse of a party to get bladdered. To forget the week ahead, soften my negative self talk. I have habitually planned entire weekends around opportunities to get pissed. To make music sound better, to make my problems seem smaller and to feel less out of place. Fuck tomorrow. I loved the way I looked after a bottle of Prosecco. I felt more articulate, funnier, and the world was less dull. There was a meaning to this life, and the meaning was to sink as much vodka as poss so that I no longer felt bored by the reality of existence. Which frankly, can be really fucking dull when your main hobby is basically wine. 

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I sort of knew, that there was more to the weekend than boozy brunches and hungover fry-ups (as lovely as bacon tastes the morning after). I wanted to see London, and museums, and the park, and my friends in all their glory without the smog of booze. I wanted to grow my mind and not drown it. I simply had to try not drinking and see what happened.

I’m not going to say that I wake up every morning these days singing like Snow White. I still have shitty sleeps, but they are fewer. I still get bouts of gloom, but they are less pronounced. I have anxiety, but it is largely fleeting. There is still a small part of me, that would love to chug 17 Prosecco’s with my friends and end up asleep on a night bus bound for Edgware with my head in a pizza. But I can’t really do it to myself anymore. 

I want to get stuff done. I want to read books and make stuff and be able to concentrate and not wallow in my own filth on a Sunday. In kindness to myself, me and alcohol have most definitely broken up. 

Annie x 

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Student Angst at 31

 

Going back to University as an early thirty something (31 actually) is a peculiar experience. Upon being accepted by your first choice of uni there is the sheer wonder that you got through that gruelling interview without saying something incriminating. There is the initial joy at the prospect of your freedom in not having a job for the next two years. The beautiful smelling wonder that is your new pencil case, the positive vibes coming from that packet of fresh highlighters. The blissful ignorance of what is around the corner.
Upon starting term there is the fear that your brain cells have been drowned in a 10-year-old vodka habit and thus no longer have the ability to retain new information. The sickening feeling of being 18 again and needing desperately to make friends ASAP, the sheer anxiety of multiple girl cliques rigidly forming on day one without you.

 

 

There is the gut churning notion that despite previous beliefs cemented in place after your final GCSE Biology exam back in the hazy summer of 2002, you will have to learn science all over again and then later be held accountable for any holes in your knowledge. You have forgotten very much what homeostasis is, let alone depolarisation. Something to do with melting ice caps and homeless bears?

 

 

Three weeks later there is the utter self-disgust that you really desperately do not want to go for a drink after lectures with your new colleagues because all you want to do is go home and make dinner because this is your new way to ‘unwind’ having realised that alcohol really fucks you up and is mostly boring (apart from on Birthdays and Xmas.) After eating an entire sack of roast potatoes you will sit in a darkened room and de-fug yourself of the absolute horror of hanging around with early twenty-somethings. HORROR. (I joke, they are mostly all amazing.) You seem to have lost all ability to listen in class for more than 30 minutes before mentally planning your escape route. You have a severe adverse internal reaction to anyone who begins chomping an apple next to you or has a recurrent sniff / sneeze / cough in lectures. You have less time for people who do not enunciate or project their voice in seminars. There is always the small possibility that you are going deaf.

You realise that you have lost all patience.

You are then really hard on yourself for having lost all of your patience.

Six months in, and you realise you are going to have to relax a little bit. You begin to own the fact that you are older and have lived (a bit) more than the early twenty somethings. You’re mostly not excited by Wetherspoons anymore and that’s OK (unless you have just finished a science exam.) You’re definitely not excited by Vodka Revolution anymore and that’s always been OK. You enjoy making risotto these days and you’re fine with it. You have more common sense than you did 10 years ago, and although you worry – you don’t sweat the cow shit so much. You have survived depression and you slay anxiety every damn day so you don’t really care that you are sitting alone at lunch; that your questions sound stupid, that you’ve just taken 10 of the most geeky nursing books on earth out of the library, or that someone has just noticed a squashed veggie burger in the external pocket of your bag that you were saving for later. You didn’t lose your nut in Fabric on Saturday and you’re proud of it. You don’t know what on Earth ‘Dua Lipa’ is and you don’t fucking care mate.

You just want to get on in your own way. There is a beauty in this. A sense of liberation. Not needing to fit in. It’s coming to terms with a new phase of life. You’re not an erratic drunken hamster on a wheel anymore. You have energy but you choose where to spend it. You’re on time to lectures because you actually want to learn this time. You think your lecturers are (mostly) really cool because they always have the answers to the hardest questions. You don’t flick peanuts at them like you used to. You love uni, but you have a life outside of it this time. Although you will absolutely take that 20% student discount at Apple for your sins. You just said ‘for your sins’ in public and you don’t care because your laptop is no longer from the Jurassic Era. For this you thank Steve Jobs, you thank him very much. Then you slide him into your enormous back pack alongside your geeky books. You take that squashed veggie burger out of your bag for all to see, and valiantly take a bite of what it feels like to be you and mostly OK with it.

 

 

Annie x

Flinging a Burning Dream off a Cliff and then Switching Careers

A little while ago, some of you may remember, I had a major freak out and quit my job. It wasn’t heroic, it was something that I simply had to do for my mental health. I’m not saying that my job was the sole reason for my breakdown, but the industry I worked in didn’t help. The years of sporadic super highs followed by regular rejections had fostered the perfect conditions for my gargantuan burn out.

My dream was to be the next Sara Cox. I chased that dream throughout my school days and for the best part of my 20’s. I was positively neurotic, and it all seemed to be going remarkably well. Over the years I tirelessly produced my own radio shows on different internet stations, I set up my own club night and I started playing out at other peoples club nights too. I had mentors and producers helping me craft demo’s, and after being nominated for a Student Radio Award and a Sony Award (the now defunct Oscars of radio) I even nearly had an agent. The key word there is nearly. I nearly got my dream.

It was on a rainy summers day that it all came unceremoniously crashing down. On the side of my fledgling DJ career I made radio documentaries for the BBC. This is something I had fallen in love with, but that couldn’t sustain me financially. (For a 60 minute feature I would earn enough for around 2 months rent and maybe a much needed yet small trip to the Tesco wine department. With each documentary taking me at least 3 months to perfect, let’s just say – the London Living Wage it was not.) On this fateful day I had been pitching my documentary ideas to the then Executive Producer of Radio 1’s daytime output. Pitching days were my least favourite of days. I could write a perfect proposal in the sanctuary of my own bedroom, but trying to articulate these opposite the dino-esque exec whilst suffering severe anxiety and low self esteem was petrifying. He had very sharp teeth. It’s a wonder I ever got anything commissioned. After said pitch, Mr. Exec (I won’t name names) asked to have ‘a word’ with me alone. He had listened to my demo, the one we had been sending back and forth for months, in between me spending days meticulously making all the changes he’d asked for because this really was it! I was in there! My palms began to sweat. My heart jumped into my throat. The conversation went something like this:

Mr. Exec: I’ve heard your latest demo – and you really are a very, very good broadcaster.

Me: (bright red, couldn’t speak.)

Mr. Exec: I just don’t think that you’re suitable for the station.

Me: Oh, (went redder, tried not to cry) um…

Mr. Exec: Do you think I’m right? Have I made the right decision?

Me: *eyes widen in disbelief/shock/anger that he is asking ME to tell HIM if he has made the right decision about ME*

In hindsight I could have been more of a brazen ox, a bit more bolshie. More forthcoming. But I wasn’t. Anxiety wouldn’t let me. The assertive part of me evacuated and I became a small tiny fluffy rabbit in the headlights of a massive fucking truck.

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I just sank into the sunken feeling and smoked a whole packet of Marlboro Menthol’s out of the window of my basement flat whilst looking at a brick wall and listening to Bob Dylan, wishing I was born in the 60’s when real talent mattered. For someone with an apocalyptic view of the world and who hadn’t discovered mindfulness yet, it felt like an entire life’s work had just been set alight and thrown off a cliff. It was really, really shit.

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My mistake was, that I had chosen to do something that EVERYONE ELSE wanted to do too. I had banked on it, I had been so focused / deluded that I actually thought this could be my career in life. No matter how hard I worked, or how good I was – the world just didn’t NEED another jovial female radio DJ. Furthermore, whether or not I was going to have my ‘Big Break’ was in the claws of one sharp-toothed shiny-headed dino-esque executive producer and he wasn’t going to take a risk on someone who wasn’t already famous on YouTube. It just didn’t make economic sense. *Soul slowly dies.*

I carried on in radio for a while, because that was all I knew. This I had decided was my vocation, what the hell else was I going to do? I ended up getting a full time job helping younger people get into radio and the arts, those who hadn’t yet been broken. I could finally pay my rent AND pay for dinner but in hindsight, it wasn’t a very good idea at all. It was like sending someone with severe claustrophobia to fix a tiny, tiny lift. You get my gist.

Shit got really real. I finally had a whopping great break down. (See previous post.)

I had to do a lot of ‘getting real’ with myself to find my next move. I knew I had to make money, but I also needed to feel passion for something again.  Whatever I did next needed to be a job I could actually realistically obtain without offering up my heart on a platter to a dinosaur or working for free basically forever. Never again did I want to work so hard for a career that just didn’t really exist. I saw something recently that sums up this sentiment perfectly…

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It was quite simple in the end. I had to learn to be honest. I just had to do things that felt real and natural to me. After my breakdown all I wanted was to be in the woods as far away from radio / media / audio editing software / dinosaurs as possible. So with my new found freedom I went to live with a couple of hippies in the woods on the Welsh borders; I found myself in rural Sri Lanka being propositioned by a large hairy naked Australian man in the dead of night whilst sleeping in a mud hut with no door, I rode up the West coast of India on night trains, I lived in a huge pink Ashram existing on watery rice and then spectacularly failed at veganism by eating my entire body weight in chicken curry. I also lost and then gained 12 pounds. Most importantly though, I didn’t think about my career or what I should do with my life. For one year I gave up those thoughts. I’m not saying I was never a tornado of emotion over what was going to happen to me. But I tried my best just to live as fully as possible, to make decisions based on what I wanted to do next and not what I thought I should because-it-would-be-good-for-my-career. It was part of my healing process and it was the beginning of a new mentality.

I stopped worrying about the future and I focused on today.

To cut a long story short, the things that I got into over the subsequent year naturally led me to my next career goal. From living in the hippy woods I found out about Thrive – a horticultural therapy charity. From volunteering at Thrive I discovered I had empathy and was good at supporting people which opened up a volunteer opportunity at Better Health Bakery – a social enterprise providing training to adults recovering from mental ill-health. Working there lead me to the realisation that I could be actually be paid to work in mental health and BOOM there it was. The penny dropped and things began to make sense.

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What I’m saying is, switching careers for me didn’t involve making mood boards or spider diagrams, it didn’t involve getting careers advice (frankly it doesn’t exist for people over 16) and it certainly didn’t involve sitting around and thinking about it. I had to LIVE first. I had to try new things without the ulterior motive of getting a job at the end of it. Yes, I was beyond broke, beyond-the-bottom-of-the-overdrafts style broke, that was scary I’m not going to lie. I did have to work some bar shifts and I also took a job promoting the most putrid perfume ever made to disinterested cinema goers. It wasn’t my highest of points.

When I told people I was ditching the heady heights of media to become a mental health nurse, the reactions I got fell into two categories. In the first category, people’s reactions went something like “oh wow that’s amazing, good for you'” and the second category sounded more like “um, are you sure you want to do that?? You will have to look after dangerous crazies.” I didn’t let the latter category put me off. They stand for a small section of people who think that all people who suffer with mental health problems go round wielding knives in hospitals and thus shouldn’t be helped. Nobody likes a quitter, they didn’t like the idea I was ‘giving up on my exciting dream’ but it was in doing this that I saved my sanity. I have subsequently been accepted to study at Kings College London in September and until then I am a recovery worker for older adults living with mental ill-health.

The switch from a creative industry into the NHS is a very disorientating one, and this itself warrants a whole other blog post. Yes I do miss the buzz of winning a commission to make the story of Mariah Carey, or interviewing my radio idol at Bestival (although when that happened she looked at me disgruntled and said “urgh, you’re annoyingly young” which made it all very underwhelming.) The world I had so tirelessly worked to crack hadn’t lived up to my expectations and the faux glamour of it all really did stink.

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I had to re-evaluate what makes me want to get out of bed, and this is it. Yes it is tough, and no there aren’t any after work piss-ups, or freebie festivals, or glitzy award ceremonies. People just do their jobs and go home to their lives. No messing. When I finish work I feel exhausted yes, often emotionally drained. But I feel valued. It’s real. Life is about what I know and doesn’t rely on who I’ve just met at a party. It’s exciting in a very different way, and I haven’t even been attacked by any of those pesky knife wielders yet, funnily enough.

Annie x

 

 

 

 

 

Talkin’ Ain’t Easy

 

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It happens during arguments and job interviews, telephone conversations with scary people and, god forbid, presentations (yuk.) The words I’m trying to say just don’t come out. Some kind of connectivity error happens between my brain and my mouth which makes the words that I do say come out in an embarrassingly jumbled up fashion. Or even worse, different words come out instead, like ‘porno’ instead of ‘protocol.’ Ok, I embellished a bit there because I would never ever say protocol, but you can catch my drift.

Historically I’ve been very good at getting my point across by writing it down. I have a fairly wide vocabulary thanks to having a Mum as an English teacher and I can structure an argument or an essay pretty well, on paper. When it comes to actually saying it out loud whilst people are looking at me and judging me with their judgy eyes on my abilities it’s wholly different. It’s as if my brain goes on holiday when under pressure, or it shuts down completely as an avoidance method like a malfunctioning Furby (do they still make them?)

Whenever I have been anxious to have a phone call with someone (like when I had to speak to Mariah Carey’s irate publicist) I would write bullet points of exactly what I needed to say in case my mind shat on me. Or if I have an argument with someone I’ll write down everything that I forgot to say in the heat of the moment and then give it to them afterwards because my mind will have melted two seconds into said confrontation and I would have probably said ‘lemurs love liars lying’ instead of ‘but you’re a liar.’

This, as you may well imagine, is all thoroughly frustrating. Kate Nash said “not being able to articulate things that I want to say drives me crazy” and I’m glad that at least one person in the public eye (kind of) has this problem and has said it.

I feel like this scene from Twin Peaks whenever I’m in a job interview. I’d be the guy in the red suit but with a different face which would be much redder and there wouldn’t be subtitles.

It’s funny because I come from a family who talk. As kids me and my Brother were encouraged to talk at the dinner table and we didn’t have a telly because my Dad wanted us to talk to each other about our days at school and what we thought of Tony Blair. So why I’m a complete shit storm in interviews I have no idea. Hold on, yes I do, it’s ANXIETY. That old chestnut. My anxiety is the reason I didn’t get the job at River Island when I was 16, and it’s definitely why I didn’t get the job at BBC Radio 1Xtra. They had asked me to describe a time I had handled a difficult situation (which is every day when you have anxiety) and I made up a story about something to do with burgers. Don’t ask me why, my brain left the room and hurled a completely weird story at them on its way out. Highly embarrassing, yes, and rather suicidal to ones career.

According to the internet it’s not only me and Kate Nash who have this foible. Ellen has it too. I need one of those machines please.

They say that you can’t judge a fish by its ability to climb trees, so really you shouldn’t judge a person on their ability to perform in job interviews when they’re really more of a writer. I’d much rather sit an exam, or at least have that as an option. So next time I have an interview, and they ask me about a time that I’ve handled a difficult situation, it’s probably best that I show them Ellen’s clip, and this blog post, and then leave. At least its better than a story about burgers.

Annie x

Antidepressants are confusing but mostly good (I think)

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Antidepressants. To do, or not to do? That was my predicament for about 5 years.

I didn’t want a drug changing my personality, (at least not beyond the weekend) and I didn’t want to be a full-time zombie. Drugs are bad, man, drugs are bad.

The years passed; and so did two courses of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, one really dodgy therapist, and one evening spent in a drunken heap on the kitchen floor after a tearful DJ set. This time I was in the darkest, most sleepless fear-filled hole ever, and I really couldn’t clamber out. So I went to my doctor, unable to speak through self-pity, snot and blubbery tears so she gave me 20mg of Citalopram. It is a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (whatever the devil that is.)

“You would be very surprised if you knew how many people are on these” She said. I then pictured all the people in my life and tried to work out which ones were doing it. There must be at least two or something, right? I also later googled which celebrities take them, and for some reason it made me feel loads better to know that Sheryl Crow (yes) probably took them at some point. If it’s OK for Sheryl, then it’s OK for me.

 

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“What does it actually do in my brain, does it rewire it?” I said desperately. I very much needed some rewiring, but I also needed to know how these tablets worked. Most of all though, I needed a boost of happiness, a chunk of rainbow joy and I was now ready to pop some pills to get it. “Well, not exactly.” She then mumbled something about serotonin that didn’t really make sense. I don’t think my Doctor really knew how the pills worked apart from the fact that they could make my symptoms worse for the first few weeks or take months to work at all. YIPPEE.

The next fourteen days in actual fact were an absolute JOKE. I downloaded the soundtrack of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ onto my iPhone and listened to ‘Any Dream Will Do’ on repeat on my way to work very loud.

 

 

I cried tears of ecstatic joy at the children’s chorus part, and the crescendo at 3’17” was all a bit too much. The rush of serotonin had allowed me to connect on a whole new level to the lyrics about dreams and weeping and returning to the beginning and being stripped of colour. I wanted to hug people on the tube. I was constantly thirsty. I had sweaty palms. I skipped, literally skipped into the office. I was positive about everything. I declared with gusto to my whole office that if you squinted and looked out of the window (in Camden) it kind of looked like L.A. I felt like I was coming up on a pill of the non-legal variety. I felt high for about two weeks, not very hungry and not really quite able to hold a professional conversation. The problem was that my anxiety was still there, only heightened. This time when my office phone rang I felt a very real and physical buzzing sensation in my heart, as if I had just had a mild electric shock. My eyes must have been on stalks. There is nothing quite like feeling like you’re coming up whilst being in a meeting about meetings and feeling the pressure to say something interesting and constructive about said meetings.

I rushed back to my doctor and told her of my weird anxiety high. She said very calmly that she would like to keep me on the same dose for at least 6 months, and that the drugs would take time to start working properly. It was weirdly awkward, I felt under pressure and I couldn’t argue, so I agreed and I left with another prescription for more pills.

In hindsight, she probably should have signed me off work for a week or so to ‘adjust’.

Over the next couple of months things did balance out, I didn’t feel the need to cry at poodles and old people, or hug them for that matter, and I felt ‘together.’ I was decisive and balanced. Although, I would definitely say that things were a lot more ‘beige’ than usual. I didn’t get as excited about Jay Z as I used to, but I also didn’t get terrible anxiety in the night about cancer and wrinkles and homelessness anymore. In fact, my sleep, which had been disrupted  and basically shit for years had started to regulate and I was sleeping better than ever.

The problem was that I couldn’t work out which part of my recovery was down to the tablets, and which part was just me. Alongside taking the medication I was also doing a great deal of meditation, I was going to regular therapy sessions and, alarmingly, I had stopped drinking alcohol. I didn’t want to feel like my recovery was all down to the tablets – but there was absolutely no way of knowing. Nobody can look inside of your brain and tell you what’s going on and why.

I know that some people take antidepressants forever, and they work. In my case, I know that they worked at a time in my life when I needed something to change. They can help coax you out of the hole, they clear the haze and things feel a bit more straightforward. I found that there wasn’t so much negative chatter in my mind, so I had the energy and confidence to do more stuff.  As a result of this, they helped me form new habits which in time encouraged recovery and a more positive way of thinking. Basically, they did their job.

I don’t think antidepressants should be given the bad rep that they often get. I was scared of them for years, and I was very ashamed of them at first. I still find them to be the most embarrassing thing to talk about surrounding my mental health. One of my close family members still thinks they are ‘the worst thing you can possibly do.’ (THANKS.) But I’m sure that if they had a headache, they’d be cool with popping an Ibuprofen.

I had a strange time at first, but it settled down in the end – and now I feel well enough to wean myself off them. It might be a long and bumpy road, but I’ll give it a go.

If you think you might need to get some extra help in the form of medication, go for it. There’s no shame. But they definitely aren’t easy and they might not work on their own. But don’t write them off because of fear, or your family, or the Daily Mail.

Annie x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 things you need to know before you WWOOF

WWOOFing = weeding. Lots of weeding
WWOOFing = weeding. Lots of weeding

If you love the wilderness, want a break from the norm and are sick of playing sardines on the tube, WWOOFing can be very attractive.

The unfortunately named WWOOF stands for ‘Willing Workers on Organic Farms.’ Or ‘Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.’ (The number of times I have had to explain that I am not planning to go around the world barking like a dog, but that WWOOFing is actually a thing is outrageous.) It is a global network of farms, who host volunteers. The volunteers work on their farms in exchange for food, board and knowledge. So if you’re skint and want to travel, it’s rather perfect.

The idea of working for free (or in exchange for food and a bed) is alien to some people. “But what about your pension?” my Dad’s voice echo’s. “How are you going to support yourself?” my therapist quizzes, looking perturbed. But, contrary to popular belief, working with nature in exchange for food can be a wildly liberating experience. You are no longer pimping yourself out to do stuff you don’t really want to do in an air conditioned box. Whilst connecting to the Earth in a very real way and learning about sustainable living, you are – for a fleeting period – free from the grip of money. You literally don’t need it anymore. You have escaped the ratty race, you are emancipated. No contracts, no boss, no shitty coffee machine.

Every WWOOFer has his or her own reason they ended up in the middle of nowhere weeding someone else’s gravel path (it’s harder than it sounds.) For me, it was because I quit my job and was fed up of paying London rent. I needed some new experiences, I was hungry to see the world outside of the box, I was disillusioned with conventional work-life and I absolutely had to get away to think about what the devil to do next with my life.

The view from the 'office'
The view from the ‘office’

So far I have WWOOFed twice this year, and both experiences have been drastically different. The first experience I will spend the least time on, because it consisted of shoveling and spreading endless wood chippings in front of some ‘glamped-up’ yurts for 6 hours a day to make them look pretty, and watching the owner sever his thumb whilst showing off with an incredibly sharp axe. This was followed by being left alone to cook Aldi frozen scampi (I’m vegan) in an out building (we weren’t allowed in the house) for me and my fellow WWOOFer before me sneaking away in the middle of the night in a panic because frankly I couldn’t stand it any longer. It was hardly organic or eco-friendly, and a safe and nurturing environment it most definitely was not.

The second adventure was much more in line with my expectations. A self-sufficient forest garden on the welsh borders, with two punks. I stayed in my own little caravan, I bathed with the ducks in their pond, I ate nettle stir-fry for the first time, and I learnt loads about low-impact living and growing food organically. This is what WWOOFing is about, there’s no taking advantage. Both sides win, and it can work.

Since my story shows that it is easy to fall into the wrong hands when you WWOOF, (after all, you are basically going to live with complete strangers) I am giving you 10 things to ponder before you travel vast distances to give your precious free time away.

1. Expect the unexpected: WWOOFing is kind of like internet dating. You see a profile online, you peruse their gorgeous pictures and brilliantly written blurb and you think to yourself – this is perfect! I have found my soul mate! So you go along with a spring in your step to the date with a super high expectation of who they are, you create a rose-tinted world of what this is going to be. Then you turn up and realise they are much shorter than they said they were and much worse at making you laugh. The same applies to WWOOFing, so make sure you do loads of research about your farm before committing – and read other WWOOFers comments about your farm thoroughly!

2. Bring your own pillow if you are fussy about things like that: Otherwise expect a very flat, lumpy, musty one. Although you’ll be so tired by the end of the day that you probably won’t notice if you were resting your head on a jagged rock. What I’m trying to say is that accommodation is often BASIC. You’ll be very lucky if you get a towel.

 

My nest

3. Expect to be lonely: If you don’t like being on your own, then make sure your farm is hosting other WWOOFers along with you.  You’ll probably have a fair amount of free time each day, and when there’s no electricity and you’ve finished your book – it can become quite boring. If you love spending time on your own though, it can be amazing! The perfect chance to write, meditate or just stare into the distance nonchalantly without a heckler in sight.

4. Bring your favourite snacks: When you are living on the farm you’ll probably be light years away from the nearest supermarket, and it might be a long time until dinner. You’ll be doing lots of manual labour which builds up an insatiable appetite and unfortunately you are entirely at the hosts mercy in regards to food. When and what they decide to cook is up to them, so there might be times when you are left anxiously craving a KFC. So bring things like nuts, rice cakes, and chocolate to stave of the hanger.

5. Keep an open mind: The deal is that you’ll do jobs that need doing, so you might not be always doing your favourite thing. For every meal eaten, there’s a plate to be washed. So if you end up down at the bottom of the woods in the dark, washing up with rain water in a massive dirty bucket, just remember ‘this too shall pass’ and hold it together.

Washing up two days worth of pots with rain water at the bottom of the woods in the great outdoors. Washing up two days worth of pots with rain water in the woods.

6. Prepare to do heavy lifting: Especially if you are bigger than the other WWOOFers. There are endless heavy things to push, pull and cart around on farms. From trailers to logs, and dirty crockery to bales of hay. So get those muscles flexing and the elbow grease greasing. (Or just hope there is someone bulkier looking than you and stand behind them so you don’t get picked.)

7. Get used to being grubby: You might be one of the lucky ones to have access to a warm shower. If you’re one of these people then good for you! Or you might have access to a cold shower, which you can build up a tolerance to. You might on the other hand not have access to any traditional washing facilities at all – in which case you hope there is a pond somewhere close for you to bathe the old fashioned way. Even if the water looks like chocolate milk and it is brimming with tadpoles, you will get in it – believe me.

My bath My bath

8. Expect to have a ‘WTF am I doing with my life’ moment: This happened to me whilst I was kneeling on my sore knees in the baking hot sun weeding a waterlogged orchard. The weeds were not friendly, I had been doing it for four hours straight and my trowel was all bendy. I was hating life. I suddenly felt the urge to give my host the middle finger. It can be tough, the work can be repetitive and you might feel like a bit of a dogs body. But then they bring out the most delicious dinner of home-grown produce and you remember about taking the rough with the smooth.

9. Prepare to listen to permaculture wizards talking about themselves: You will probably be living with hosts who are incredibly passionate about what they do, or what they have created. This is brilliant, and you’ll probably learn loads from them. They live and they breathe their project, and they probably don’t go out very much because of all the work it entails. So although you are also a very important individual with your own story, and your own goals, prepare for them to want to talk mostly about themselves and their vision. In some cases they might want to talk about their  ‘spiritual journey’ and the time that they ‘meditated for so long that water came gushing out of their palms.’ These words were actually spoken, no joke. So practice your best ‘sincere/interested/captivated’ face.

10. Have some taxi numbers handy in case you need to escape: If the worst comes to worst you’ll just have to do a runner. If you’ve got a really nice boyfriend/girlfriend then they might rescue you. If not, keep a list of local taxis handy, so you can do a vanishing act. Obviously it’s better to come to some arrangement with your host if it isn’t working out, but if you suffer from anxiety and feel like you are trapped and aren’t able to rationalise in the heat of the moment – then get the hell out of there. Call a cab, go home, run yourself a bath, eat a massive sandwich of your choice and revel in your new found freedom. After all, you’re a volunteer and not a prisoner.

If you have any other WWOOFing tips, make it known below.

Annie x

I Quit Being Sensible

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I haven’t told you this yet but I have done something bold and decisive and honest and potentially foolish. I quit my job.

This, as you can imagine, was not a light decision. This was my first ‘normal’ job after years of bar working and freelancing and I was chuffed to finally have a regular and stable salary and free weekends. Hooray! I graduated the same year that the Credit Crunch took hold in the UK and the jobs market was literally ‘Dodo extinct.’ So I was thrilled to finally be able to pay my ever increasing London rent, and to cook a massive dinner with all the trimmings for all my friends without worrying about how much it cost. Hell, I even shopped at M&S.

For months and months I trudged through a thick soup of depression trying to work out whether it was my job or just me that was making me sad. When you have depression, the difficulty in differentiating between what is a ‘depressive episode, so you’re perceptions are all skewiff’ and what is actually a ‘genuinely shit situation that would make anyone sad’ is incredibly difficult. I tried hard to imagine someone else in my shoes to work out whether they would be unhappy too, but of course, that didn’t work because I am and will always be me. I was crying at cute dogs and old people on the tube, for God’s sake, something had to give.

When I was signed off work for anxiety and depression and trying to fill my days with mind nourishing things to make me better, I gradually realised that although I am prone to periods of depression and big bouts of anxiety wherever I am in the world – it was a great deal worse when I was at work. Being away from work made me feel human again. I explored and I read and I walked and swam, I got back in touch with a childlike curiosity for life, and the simple things that make life wonderful (like growing cress in pots, climbing trees, making banana bread, talking to my Mum, reading the Beano.)  I realised I was actually quite happy about most of life, but that I hated my job.

I had been telling my therapist that I had survived a breakdown. He didn’t like the term ‘breakdown’ and so he did something incredible which was to flip it completely. “No” he said “You’ve had a realisation, a catalyst for change, an exciting epiphany.” I wanted to throw a heavy object at him and tell him sternly that feeling like you can’t get out of bed ever and that you are wading through mud on a daily basis does not feel like an exciting epiphany to me. But now, after a bit of time, I can see exactly what he means. This was a realisation, an arrival at the idea that something in my life had to change, something in my life was making me unwell. It was liberating and it was scary. I knew I couldn’t stay in my job. It was a lovely job, a sensible job, but it wasn’t for me.

I realised that too many of the decisions I have made in my life have been because I think I should, and not because I have wholeheartedly and passionately wanted to. I studied Sociology instead of Art at College because I thought it was more sensible, and I did Hospitality Managament at Uni because I thought I’d get a stable job at the end of it, I chose baked potatoes instead of chips in restaurants because I should, I even went to church because it would be ‘me being good.’ Too many choices taken out of wretched fear or a sense of obligation.

Ever since the day I realised that I would have to find a job when I grew up, I’ve been suffocated and worried by the idea of fitting into the world, and by the question ‘what to do’ with my life. This, I think, has been the real root of my anxiety. I took my full-time stable job because it looked like the safest option, it wasn’t my dream job but it was something that would pay me money and was vaguely connected to the thing I’d trained for. But it didn’t make me want to live. The truth is, I took the job because I didn’t know what I wanted to ‘do’ next with my life. And because the pressure and alienation and guilt felt when not knowing what to do with your one-and-only-life is hideous.

From childhood we are conditioned to find our place in the world, a place that will earn us money. Money is a necessity, I know, and there is a mind-bogglingly large number of ways to get it. But after a breakdown/realisation something changes in the very core of your being. In a way, things become simpler. You have seen what the bottom looks like, and you don’t want to go back there, so you need to follow what feels good in your very soul, what is quite literally your guttural instinct.  You have a need to find something that makes your life worth living each day. So now, the only option is to feel my way through life. Does this feel right, working in this office? No? Then get the hell out of there. Life’s too short. Do you feel good working with this tree and this soil and these worms? Yes? Then keep doing it. It’s about using your intuition and it’s smart. Surely this is a route to contentment.

The luxury that wild animals have that we don’t, is that they can and do simply act on instinct. Generally speaking, the animal kingdom goes through life doing exactly what it feels like doing. Starlings migrate to the other side of the world because they feel in their bones that that is the right thing to do. Us humans however often have to disregard instinct because we need to earn money to survive and life just ‘gets in the way’ of doing what we really want to do. I’m not sure if anyone’s instinct is to sit behind a screen for 8 hours a day in a stuffy office doing budgets, but I’m sure it’s lots of peoples instinct to tell stories, to run in fields, to make art, to swim in the sea. Perhaps this is a simplistic way of looking at life, but to me it feels right.

So, to follow my nose I’m taking time out from the pressure of ‘having to be something’ in the world. As part of my healing process and my recovery I’m just going to be me.  It means I’m absolutely stone broke of course, but I think it will be worth it in the end. I’m going to try everything, everything that I feel like. Eventually I want a job that is going to make me sing when I wake up in the morning; so I’m going to volunteer all over the place, with elephants and the elderly, with nature reserves and Buddhist monks, I’m going to explore explore explore like Phileas fucking Fogg until I find the thing that makes me tick. I’m on a grand new voyage, a quest for realness, wholeness and not for obligation. So I say bollocks to being sensible. Life – I’m coming for you.

Annie x

 

From Under the Duvet Tent

I had been sent home from work in a ball of tears and I had made myself a duvet tent. Duvet tents are great, they are warm and nobody can see you. But I knew I couldn’t stay under my delicious duvet tent forever, my flatmates would be home soon and I had a chicken kiev in the fridge that needed eating. I also knew that I had missed the (very small) booking window for a doctors appointment that day. Though I needed to speak to somebody professional, so I called Mind. 

What happened next was a conversation with a very straightforward, no-nonsense lady. That conversation might have saved my life. I blubbed and I blubbed, she didn’t falter because this was OK. It was good to cry and it was brave of me to call. I had made the first step, she said.

Months later it was through Mind that I learned the art of Mindfulness. I count this as a crucial moment in my recovery.

My stomach churned and hands sweated as I waited in the reception of Hackney & City Mind for the first session. I was very close to running out of the door as my all too familiar fight or flight instinct kicked in. ‘I don’t have to put myself through any more embarrassment, I can leave’ I thought. I just couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in a room full of strangers, discussing my mental health. I really needed the comfortable solitary confinement of my duvet tent.

But as the first session wore on and I got to know my classmates, I felt a lifting sense of relief, and my crushing loneliness began to dissipate. Although I felt exposed and still a little nervous, I actually felt normal for the first time in ages. The notion that there were other people in the same room dealing with anxiety or other mental health conditions whilst holding down jobs, families, and busy lives in London was the comfort that I needed.

Over the next 8 weeks, as a small group, we learned to be mindful together. Gwen Williams, our teacher, was calm and self-assured and she would take a silent moment to ‘gather her thoughts’ when she needed. I had never seen anyone do this before, to literally stop, close their eyes and compose themselves in front of people. This left a lasting impression on me and gave way  to my own ‘moments to gather’ which I use whenever I feel jumbled or overwhelmed by pressure. This is about self-worth, the permission to take a pause, even if people are waiting on you.

Gwen taught me to breathe. The biggest anchor us humans have in connecting with ourselves and with the present moment. I was (and still am) a terror for running away with my thoughts, my mind on an endless stream of vivid imaginings of painful experiences, or situations going terribly wrong. But Gwen taught me to catch myself, to wake up, and to look at my thoughts objectively – like passing clouds – instead of getting bogged down in what I call one of my ‘epic thought films of despair.’

You are not your thoughts, thoughts are passing guests in your guest house. This notion works for me. If I could get away with having it tattooed on my forehead I would.

Mindfulness has given me permission to enjoy life thoroughly. It is OK to stop, to sit quietly and to breathe. In fact, for me it is essential.

Have you ever sat down to your dinner mindfully? Focusing completely on the aroma,  the texture, the multitude of flavours, the way they dance on your tongue? I dare you – it is mind blowing.

Thanks to Gwen, and to Mind who made this free class possible, and for teaching such a brilliant life-saving skill.

Annie x

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The Taming of the Dog

They say you need to be settled down to own a dog. You need to have bags of time and money, a home with no sharp edges and a garden where it can poo. I was given my dog when I had none of these things.

I dreaded Maths on a Monday, I worried I wouldn’t make friends at Brownies, I worried about my Mum having a car crash on the way home from Sainsbury’s, and about making conversation with my teacher as she drove me to school. I was gnawingly anxious that underneath my gingham school dress I was wearing a Country Companions vest while my friends were all in training bras. On bad days, I worried that my entire family would die and I would be homeless. You might have called me ’a bit of a worrier,’ and you might think It’s all a little bit dramatic. But this is all very real for someone who has what I like to call an ’apocalyptic view of the world.’
My dog was tiny at first, and sort of manageable. I got used to having it around, it had been there since my mum dropped me off at the creche. But as I grew, it grew too. As I became an adult It became so big that people couldn’t see me anymore. It sapped my energy with its demands for attention – and there was absolutely no room for anything or anyone else in my life. When I was 23 it left me hopelessly looking for a way out in a messy heap on the kitchen floor, staring at the bubbling brown plastic lino.
The peculiar thing about my dog though, is that it isn’t always big and suffocating. Yes, I have days when it’s alarmingly larger than the day before, it makes me dizzy and my words get jumbled. But more often than not it is small and discreet and we can exist quite happily together. In fact, I need the dog sometimes. We all need some anxiety, some worrying thoughts and some stresses to stayed switched on to life and to physically go forward. So through a lot of trial, error and therapy, I have learnt a pack of survival techniques to keep this over-anxious dog at a manageable puppy size, and snoozing in the corner.
My biggest lifeline during my darkest moments has been writing. Under my bed I have notebook upon notebook of anxious scribblings, mythical stories about magic, diary extracts and silly poems. I’ve written about all sorts to stop my mind ruminating or running on a never ending chain of unhelpful thoughts. None of these notes have seen the light of day. But during the recovery of my most recent depressive episode spurred on by months of writhing anxiety in my abdomen and broken sleep, I decided to create something positive out of a big fat negative. I decided to get my writing out into the open and I decided to create this blog.
It is going to be simple. I am going to write openly and honestly about this condition, and I am going to record the things in my life that help keep the dog in the corner. I might write a comedy sketch about a conversation, or about an uplifting song, an experience, a recipe, a particularly helpful meditation practice or a place. I want to join the conversation about mental well being, a conversation that is thankfully getting louder. I am one of over 8 million anxiety sufferers in the UK, that’s an enormous number of anxious dogs. That makes this conversation a conversation worth having.

Anxious Annie.

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