How to win the war on chocolate

They called it the Software Stone. Start working at a fun software company, you'll put on a stone.

There was a call this year for companies to stop providing treats. But companies also want to create a certain atmosphere, both for their clients and for their staff.

And me? I didn't feel tempted. I can take it or leave it.

What if you could gain control of your cravings? How much happier would you feel in your own skin. How much brain power would you save without having to fight with yourself every time you stepped away from the keyboard?

How I turned my chronic leg injury into an advantage

Mentally and physically

Don't train through pain. See a sports therapist. I have learnt to take better care of myself. Weakness, dysfunction, tightness, overuse.

People say: never allow yourself to whine, don't complain. Who the hell can do that? It's OK to get it out. I think it's essential.

The first thing to say is that it's OK to feel unhappy. Yes, it's even OK to cry. Our emotions are natural. By allowing yourself to feel anger, frustration, sadness you are already ahead of the game. You will be coming to acceptance a lot sooner. Note that acceptance doesn't mean complacency, but it switches are focus from wishful thinking, to reality. This is what the situation is. I'm here now, let's deal with it pro-actively.

Write a list of things you CAN do.

Find someone different to train with.

A yoga class? Swimming? Mix it up. This will help you avoid burnout anyway. When you get back, you'll be eager.

I trained with a bodybuilder and it was a lot of fun. I started more calisthenics, gymnastics and ring work. I became an upper body hero.

This is an opportunity to work on weaknesses, which will make me a better athlete. Strip everything back, focus on technique. There is always something you can do to improve.

Take care of yourself in other ways:

One idea is to write a list of things that cheer you up on a piece of paper. Then cut them out, put them in a box. When you feel crappy, pull one out of the box at random. (Go for a walk. Sing. Hang out with friends. Listen to loud music. Meditate.)

Embrace Your Pain

2016 was a fucked up year for most of us. Between Brexit, Trump, and a million celebrities dying, there was little time left for a good, solid moan about the weather.

2016 was an interesting year for me on a personal level, too. I started the year completely burnt out: after spending 2015 weightlifting 7-8 times a week, while trying to write a novel, complete an art course, do more singing/recordings, and socialise with friends, all while holding down a full time job. Well, all it took was an innocent question from my brother in February to throw me completely off the rails: why are you doing all this stuff?

Queue reverse "zero to hero" montage.

I ended up totally unmotivated, questioning my reasoning, my purpose, and just... surviving. I went to work, and I went home. I had become everything I ever feared.

Sometimes it doesn't matter how many times you talk to different people, the answers just aren't in front of you. But you have to keep searching, because the answers are there, somewhere. You will find them eventually. 

Sometimes it takes another, new person in your life. Sometimes it takes an article on the internet, or a book. For me, this time, it was a mixture of talking to the owner of my gym (after threatening to quit and him not letting me!), reading a book called Sports Slump Busting, and another called Grit (by Angela Duckworth). I also found out about Effective Altruism because there happened to be a meetup in London when I was free one day.

I went part-time at work. I made courses for people (Mental Resilience and Nutrition courses). I thought I wanted to become an Art Therapist, but eventually realised I couldn't sacrifice myself enough for what I needed to do to get into that. By October, I had managed to get another job at an amazing company, still as a Technical Author, but one whose impact is felt.

I was running and joining crossfit classes (to mix up my training), I was light. I felt great. And then comes Peroneal Tendinopathy. I'd had it since April/May time, realistically, but I trained through it. And now it was acute and chronic.

I am someone who is resilient. I have learnt to be in order to survive. Calisthenics and, moreover, Gymnastic Bodies.

Whenever I see someone amazing on the internet, they've always done some sport from a young age. Normally it's gymnastics. There seems to be no other training like it.

Mobility and flexibility, with strength. They are all three important.

Every time I start something worthwhile, I always think "I wish I'd started this sooner". In some ways I hope to never stop having that feeling. And, in others, I wish I'd found the answers earlier. But life is a journey, and no matter how many times someone tells you something, you have to find out for yourself.

The steps are:

  1. Dare to fail
  2. Fail (it's inevitable if you're doing important work)
  3. Embrace your pain (learn and adapt)

advice for the broken hearted

Breakups. They hurt.

I believe it is important to feel the pain, rather than distract from it; to realise it is OK to feel like this. In fact, it is better than OK:

"Heartache reminds us that people aren't disposable. Every person we share ourselves with should be someone special, or we made a mistake." - Steffi Schnobel

The pain now means that the person in question touched our heart. There was a profound connection, and that is a beautiful thing. Bring your attention inward: breathe deeply, feel the tears roll down your cheek, put a hand on your heart and feel it hurting, but notice that it is still beating.

"Every person we meet touches us and adds to us in a unique way. Try to focus on what their role in your journey was, and what you were for them." - Steffi Schnobel

There is something to be learnt from every experience. Switching to a gratitude mindset, rather than focusing solely on the pain will help you to sleep, and then to eventually move on.

"There is no remedy for love but to love more" - Henry David Thoreau

Send the person in question, and yourself, some loving kindness

Plan to do some activities you enjoy. Reach out to your friends and other people you love. Along with hugs and stories of their own struggles, they can give you advice (thanks, Steffi). Go outside, do some gentle movement/exercise, meditate, listen to music, draw, have dinner with a friend -- whatever you need to give you an extra boost. 

Compassion and kindness, towards yourself and others, is always the key to healing.

you are enough

I don't know if it's a generational thing, but I know I'm not alone in equating productivity to self-worth. We are under the impression that if we work hard enough we can achieve great things. So we put enormous pressure on ourselves to do so.

But what if we are already enough?

What if this body, that is capable of love, kindness, warmth, compassion, what if that is enough to live a human life?

This isn't about giving up on hopes, dreams, goals, it's about accepting who and what we are and finding the self-compassion to allow us to continue.

What if we could re-frame our thoughts? Instead of "I will only be happy when I achieve ______", maybe we can tell ourselves "I am happy right now because I am moving towards ______".

Strength is relative: you are stronger than you know

We already know strength is relative: a 100kg squat for me is a different ball game to Klokov. What is strong for me is weak for him. Sure. But I recently realised strength is relative in a different way.

I was struggling with some difficult emotions recently, but I forced myself to go to a Strongman class at my local gym. I got there, started doing the first few exercises and I knew I couldn't go on. I told the coach I needed to leave (something I never thought I'd do), I cancelled the next class that I was also going to do right after, and I left, walking five minutes to where I'd left my bike, trying not to break down in front of anyone. I got to the place where my bike was, and in the quiet, away from the street and the people, I noticed something: I wasn't hungry. And then I cried. You see:

  • In this moment, strength meant not making these emotions about food, despite having a history of disordered eating.
  • In this moment, strength meant crying.
  • In this moment, strength meant cycling home, having a shower, getting clean, taking care of my body with gentle movements and mobility.
  • In this moment, strength was the knowledge that tomorrow I had the opportunity to come back and try again.

The old me would have seen quitting as a sign of weakness. It would have berated myself for giving up, not trying hard enough. I would have told myself I would never amount to anything if I keep quitting like this. Now I can see stopping where I did was actually an opportunity to show strength. Because strength is relative, not just from person to person, but from moment to moment.

There is opportunity in every moment

Once your needs are cared for, it is your duty to make the world a better place.

Life will never be optimal, perfect.

Fantasies are fun, but we can lose entire days in them.

Breathe. Be grounded. Give gratitude to the now.

Feel the opportunity in this very moment.

Create. Be kind. Give.

Love.

what to do when you feel powerless to change

I recently started reading The Grip of Death by Michael Rowbotham, which discusses (among other things) how 97% of all money in circulation in the UK was, and is, pulled out of thin air by private corporations every time someone takes out a loan. Now, if I -- as an individual -- were to create new money, I would be arrested and thrown in jail. Banks, on the other hand, are not only allowed to do this, but they actually demand this money back, at interest, and threaten to steal your home and belongings if you don't make the repayments.

I tried to read the book from a purely academic point of view, but I began to find it difficult to remain emotionally removed. This happens to me on many issues. The cycle goes something like this:

  Feelings of injustice --> Anger, the need to rise up, join a group, make a change --> Realising the problem goes way, way too deep --> Overwhelming feeling of powerlessness --> Huge negativity about the state of the world.

It happened when I went to the Sony World Photography Awards and saw photos about acid attacks in Iran, female genital mutilation, traffiking, etc. It happened when I learnt just how much eating animals affects the environment and the planet. In short, I let issues affect me. (It's one of the reasons why I don't read the news.)

So I asked some people who are smarter than me about what they do when they feel powerless about the state of the world:

I have found that when something pierces my heart it helps if I do a little something, even if it feels microscopic. For example, if here is a natural disaster I can donate a bit of money to help with relief or if it's something environmental I can assess my personal footprint and decide if there is something I'd like to change. Then when the feeling that I am not doing anything significant comes up, I can remind myself of these things.  - Brandice Lardner.
The way I deal with it is to be satisfied internally with myself. I try to treat people well. I think there are quite a few good people in the world, but helping an old lady cross the road does not make world headlines. So just be nice and hope in 5,000 years time most others will be nice too.... The only problem would be that reading the news might not be so exciting. - My dad.

I also found this helpful quote on Refine The Mind:

Perhaps the most important thing I remembered is that I am just one human with my own issues and shortcomings. It is not within my power to solve all of the world’s problems, and that’s okay. It is a fallacy to impose inadequacy onto natural boundaries that we do not choose for ourselves. I needed to recognize my limitations, but also appreciate what I can and do contribute. I write, teach, create, donate, get better at recycling, try to be kind.

When caught up in the bad, it is somehow easy to forget all of the great things humans have achieved. And yes, there are many barriers things that, for example, fixing the economy could help speed up but we were born into a system, and yes I think it is our duty to question it, but we must also try to make the best of it. Change doesn't happen overnight, and nor does it happen when humans work purely as individuals. No single person achieved anything completely unaided. We absolutely must work together to elicit big change.

Having said that, we can also make a difference, right now, as individuals. Day by day, we can be kind to each other. This adds up to something huge, as a collective of people; I have yet to come across a situation where acting compassionately was the wrong thing to do.

There will be some people who can dedicate their lives to a cause, and that is great. For the rest of us, we can set an example by acting with kindness, where possible. We can donate or volunteer to a cause, we can mention the issue to a few people in general conversation (without shoving it down their throats). The human race will always have problems, and it is not feasible, nor sensible to dedicate every waking moment thinking about all of them. But if you talk to one person, that's one more person on this planet who is aware of the issue. Education is power; new ideas spread and inspire. Then together, little by little, we can elicit change.

Say Thank You More

I thought the maths exam was so good that I emailed the exam board to tell them what a great variety of problems there were, and how fair I thought it was.

Wow. I would never think to do that.”

I always make it a point to say thank you to those who deserve it. In this case, I imagine very few students say thank you for the exams.

Yeah, I bet.

I got a very nice response thanking me for my own feedback.

That’s cool. I’m sure they really appreciated it.

This is a conversation I had with a friend of mine (Jack) when I was around 15 or 16 years old. This conversation changed me. I was blown away by how kind and thoughtful Jack was, that I decided from then on to always make sure I thanked everyone, too.

I thank people with words, with hugs. I email companies if they’ve done a particularly excellent job. I have written verbose letters to friends who have impacted my life in a big way. I have illustrated cards and recorded myself singing/playing an instrument, all in the name of gratitude.

For instance, here's a card I sent a friend, to say thank you. (He's a pianist, and this work is actually fan-art of the stunning Le Pianoquarium by Aqua Sixio):

 

Why have I spent time doing this?

Firstly because I enjoy it. I enjoy making things for people. I already like to create, and I constantly want to improve: I often find my motivation levels are highest when I create for someone else. As John Green said:

Every single day I get emails from aspiring writers asking how to become a writer and here’s the only advice I can give: Don’t make stuff because you want to make money, it will never make you enough money. Don’t make stuff because you want to get famous because you will never feel famous enough. Make gifts for people and work hard on making those gifts in the hope that those people will notice and like the gifts. Maybe they will notice how hard you worked and maybe they won’t, and if they don’t notice, I know it’s frustrating, but ultimately, that doesn’t change anything because your responsibility is not to the people you’re making the gift for but to the gift itself.” - John Green

Secondly - perhaps somewhat more soberly - you never know when someone will not be here any more. Everyone’s time on this earth is temporary, and personally I don’t want anyone to leave without knowing how much their words and actions meant to me.

Thirdly, most people want feedback. They want to feel like they have made an impact; to know what they are doing in the world is making a difference to someone, somewhere. We’re all trying to find our way through the randomness life brings. Sometimes a little thank you can be a guide for us - to confirm we are going about things in the right way. It can make all the difference.

Here's a story I illustrated for my friend Adam, to say thank you for his help after a recent four months in Silicon Valley.

Fourthly - as the many studies of gratitude indicate [see, e.g. http://happierhuman.com/the-science-of-gratitude/], and as my anagram suggests - I too benefit from the practice, and have felt the effects of an increase in happiness.

There are (of course) many different ways to thank someone. Personally I have a few different stages depending on the level of gratitude I want to express. Saying “thank you” to strangers is easy, and takes no time. Writing emails is the next step up. Then writing a long, thoughtful letter. The final stage is illustrating or writing or singing for someone. This takes the longest time and is only used for those who have really made a deep and lasting impact on me. I prefer these approaches over buying objects for people, but that’s just a personal philosophy.

So perhaps you might like to try passing on gratitude, too. If someone has done a good job, if someone has said something that has made you think in a different way, or see things in a new light. If someone has brought you soup when you were ill, or made you smile again after a rough day. If someone has held a door open for you, or allowed you to go in front of them in a queue, thank them (and - importantly - mean it). Take a moment, look them in the eyes, and tell them. Those two simple words take almost no time to say and it can change someone’s entire day (or maybe even their life).

Ironically, there is one person I forgot to thank. Sorry it’s taken me so the best part of ten years. Finally, then: thank you, Jack Webster, for shaping my personality in what you thought was an innocuous conversation. Thank you for changing me for the better.

how strength training helped me overcome my problems with food, and become a strong, confident, sexy beast

I used to have a tendency to go overboard. An all-or-nothing mindset. I was a perfectionist and an "overachiever". I'd always been into sports, but when I started Karate in 2007, I took it pretty seriously. A few years later, I broke my toe in a fight. I finished the fight, I even kept training very hard on it for the next few weeks until I graded to the next belt. After that, I stopped. I suddenly lost all my confidence in fighting; in myself.

I needed to rest my injury, but after a week or so of doing nothing, decided I needed to do some sort of exercise. So I started doing my own high-intensity interval training. This was a good way for me to train around my injury but, inevitably, I became obsessed with that style of training, instead. 

I decided to get in the best shape of my life. I wanted to be fit and strong. I became obsessed with having visible abs. So I trained hard, at high intensity every day, without fail, and I started restricting my intake. I cut out sugar and carbohydrates completely. Actually, I barely ate anything. And my weight plummeted from 55kg to 42kg in a matter of weeks. Without realising it myself at the time, I began to look fairly skeletal, and my eyes were rocking that "malnourished" look:

I stabilised at 42kg for a fair while, but then I started eating more and my weight crept back up. I hated this. I didn't realise what I was doing to myself: I kept restricting in order to punish my starving body for wanting to eat. I wouldn't allow myself to go to restaurants. My social life became non-existent. I had struggled with depression most of my life, and when I moved to a city where I didn't know anybody (to start my Ph.D.), I felt completely isolated and alone; I became depressed again.

At this point I hired a personal trainer to try to become motivated again. I started training for strength in the gym and I gained some muscle. After a few months, my weight had crept back up to around 48kg, but I was still very lean.

The personal trainer I hired believes in the paleo diet which meant - by following his advice - I was continuing to restrict myself specific food groups. Moreover, I was so desperate to get visible abs, I ended up restricting myself to eating only white fish and green leaves. After years of restriction, this final restrictive behaviour lasted about five days before I basically "blew up".

The next thing I knew, I was binge eating. Unstoppable, crazy, bingeing. I had no idea where my "willpower" had disappeared to. I had no idea what was happening to me. I felt insane. How could I be putting all this food in my body when it was what the direct opposite of the goals I'd put in so many hours working for? It was highly illogical. But it continued and, in response, I would try to starve myself. It was a cycle of bingeing and starvation - and I didn't know how to stop.

(For reference, Ancel Keys's Minnesota Starvation Experiment gives pretty overwhelming evidence that bingeing in this way is a normal response to this kind of restriction, but at the time, I assumed it was a flaw in myself, and the associated feelings of guilt and disgust only helped to ingrain the pattern.)

I ended up weighing 63kg in just a couple months. By this point, my training had changed. I had met some powerlifters - massive, 100kg+ guys - at the gym and they took me under their wing. They made me realise that I wasn't "strong". I remember one of them said that "almost anyone can get fit in a few months - but real strength, that takes ten years or more of consistent, hard training". I was impressed by their attitudes, commitment and their strength. I was sold. So I decided to concentrate on the weight on the bar going up, rather than my body weight going down. I made sure - no matter what - that I trained consistently. I'd go to the gym if I had binged, or felt excruciatingly unhappy. I made it the most important thing to me.

Of course, I also noticed my performance in the gym was related to my nutrition so this helped me get on track a little bit, but my entire mentality had changed: 

I also sought nutritional help from an online coach. Unfortunately, I was made to measure and weigh every morsel of food that went into my mouth. This was OK on the days I stuck to it, but I still was bingeing several times a week. I now know that I couldn't stick to it because the last thing I needed in my life at that time was another diet, but at the time I really couldn't understand what had happened to my self-control. I realised the online coaching wasn't working. I tried looking for help elsewhere - in person around the area - but nothing, and no one seemed to be helping me. It was Christmas 2011 - after a particularly bad binge - that I decided to turn my life around.

As I explain in more depth in that article, I slowly began to heal emotionally. My disordered eating was getting a lot better by not even dealing with it directly. By learning to be kinder to myself, I was automatically giving myself the nourishment my body needed. However, I was still bingeing at least once a fortnight and finally I found out about AskGeorgie.com.

If you are suffering from problematic eating, please go check out that website. Not only is it full of practical advice, articles and recipes but Georgie and her team (Roland, Brandice and Kara) are just about the loveliest people you could ever get to know. They genuinely care about your wellbeing and they use habit-based learning to slowly change behaviours. Together you analyse what happened on the lead up towards the binge so you can learn why you did it. This testimonial I wrote sums up my feelings:

After suffering from anorexia/orthorexia for a few years, I began a cycle of binge eating and starving. Initially I sought help online from various coaches who asked me to count calories, weigh my food, or set me up with “rules” I couldn’t stick to. I ended up struggling on my own for a while. The problem was I didn’t need another diet - what I really needed was to heal emotionally, form a better relationship with food, and with myself. Enter Brandice. She really took the time to listen to my story and we began looking at the baby steps I could take to move forward. Breaking things down into manageable tasks took away the scariness of the overwhelming “I must stop bingeing” mission. Unlimited emails and bi-weekly Skype calls with Brandice - someone who’s been there herself - meant I never felt alone during this part of my journey. In concentrating on small habits, on the triggers and emotions surrounding a binge, and on loving (and forgiving) myself no matter what, meant I was able to rebuild a healthy, positive relationship with food. I finally feel comfortable (infact, very happy!) in my own skin. Finding peace around food can only come from within, but Georgie and her team will listen, guide, and - above all - really care about you on your journey. I have found their support invaluable.

Seeking help from AskGeorgie was the final nail in the coffin for my problematic eating and personally, I've never been happier, or stronger.

How Visualisation helped me let go of the past and become the best version of myself

For years I was unable to process a couple of traumatic events that occurred during my childhood - one of which particularly haunted me. I either couldn’t think about it at all - wouldn’t allow myself - or I would become extremely, somewhat uncontrollably, upset.

Of course, as a child, I felt that what happened to me was entirely my fault. (In fact, I was actually told that at the time by the adult who hurt me.) And from that moment on, I basically blamed myself for everything. I was the sole cause of - in my mind - every misery the people I knew (and at times even the world) suffered from. So many times I could feel people’s suffering weighing me down - as though I had to try to hold everyone’s problems on my own shoulders.

It’s no real surprise, then, that I would become depressed, over and over.

On top of this, I felt I had to prove my worth. So I pushed myself as hard as I could. I tried to be an “overachiever”. I would become obsessed with many different activities, one at a time, until I was “adequate”, then move on. But I was also a perfectionist. If I didn’t get 100% in exams, tests; if I didn’t know an answer to a question my teacher would ask, I would feel terrible - almost to the point of tears. I was letting myself - and my parents - down. 

Eventually I gave myself an eating disorder. On top of the depression I was continuing to experience, one Christmas I decided to turn my life around. I became interested in meditation and I spoke to a counsellor named Dee Bowker (see that article for more details). 

Upon gentle prompting, and through a plethora of tears, I just about managed to tell Dee the traumatic events that happened to me as a child. Along with other creative exercises, she asked me to think about what an adult would have said to me at the time: what I - as an adult now - would have told my younger self. I felt this was all too hard to think about. I couldn’t do it in the session, nor for the next few days. But I was going to a meditative silent retreat at Gaia House that weekend (a meditation centre in Devon).

During the weekend, I was sat in the beautiful meditation hall along with about forty people. The meditations were occasionally led, but mostly not. At some point, in the silence, I remember feeling the weight of the problems of everyone in the room. We were all there for a reason, I thought, and I could feel their sadness. I then began to think about what Dee had asked of me. So I’m sitting, I’m breathing, and I’m visualising the traumatic event. When it becomes too much for me, I come out of the visualisation - back to the breath - and become grounded. It was like hitting the pause button - I didn’t become inescapably lost in the thoughts and emotions surrounding the event. I could breathe.

 

I visualised myself - as an adult - standing, watching the event of my childhood unfold in front of me. Once it finished, I went over and picked up the child - my younger self. I comforted her. I brushed her hair with my hand. I wiped away her tears. I told her what just happened wasn’t her fault. That I loved her.

Tears were streaming down my face. I tried to sob silently so as not to distract anyone else from their meditation. But the effect of the visualisation was powerful. It allowed me to think about the event for the first time, with the safety of a pause button.

After the retreat, I found I was able to think about the childhood event more without becoming as upset about it. I even decided to write about what happened to me in the form of a novel. I found the more I was able to think about - and process - the event without becoming caught up in it, the more I was able to accept and let go of it. And for the first time, I began to realise that it really wasn’t my fault, that I wasn’t such a hateful child (and, by extension, adult) after all. In fact, eventually after a lot of hard work I was able to grow to love and accept all that I am (and, indeed, all that I am not).

Finding My Lost Creativity (and how it helped me overcome my eating disorder)

I always loved to draw as a child. When I was 16, I had to decide which A-levels to pursue, and I was torn between Art and Chemistry as my fourth (and final) subject. I reasoned that I could more easily do art than chemistry in my spare time (and it would probably be more useful for Physics/Maths at University). Except - when it came down to it - I didn’t. My art stayed there, and became my past. I drew very, very occasionally - maybe once or twice a year. The guitar I once played for hours a day also got left behind. And I became almost afraid to pick it up again - just like that pencil.

This lasted for six years, from 2006 until 2012. 

By this point I was deep into disordered eating, and had decided to turn my life around. It was my counsellor - Dee Bowker - who reignited my creativity. She suggested creative journalling to me, but I was sceptical. I had already been doing Morning Notes and Gratitude, so I had seen how writing had begun to help me, but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of illustrating my words.

But she knew I had lost my creativity and needed it back.

She said it didn’t matter what it looked like. That no one would see it. No one would judge it. That it was mine alone.

And it was.

I started doodling around my words; colouring them in. I felt like a child - and it was liberating. Too long I’d been writing, neatly on the line. I felt like I now had the "permission" to write as big or as small as I like, push the pen so hard that it went through the paper, bend the spine of the book, tear it apart, and write my heart onto those blank pages.

On some evening during those weeks, I felt a strong impulse to binge eat, but instead, I picked up a pencil and for the first time in six years I started drawing.

I drew Daniel Conway's Softly Sleeping. His version:

The version I drew that night:

It took all of my concentration, and by the time I had finished, the desire to eat was non-existent. This was the first glimpse of hope in a long time of darkness: that these desires weren’t completely uncontrollable knee-jerk reactions that I absolutely had to listen to. In fact, they are just thoughts - thoughts that I usually became too lost in, so they seemed like the absolute truth. My drawing took my mind away from those thoughts. It was avoidance, but it worked.

As with all good therapy, we also talked about my childhood. I had some traumatic events as a child that I couldn't seem get over - that were too painful to think about. But after gentle prompting and my experience at Gaia House, I decided to write "my story", as though in fictitious prose. It was very difficult to write at times, but it was worth it. Here's a message I sent to a friend after several revisions:

"I cannot recall the number of times I've replayed those events over in my head, but seeing them written down - reading and editing my work over and over - it almost feels like they are someone else's; I almost cannot believe they happened to me anymore."

Creativity was the perfect tonic.

In time, I let more creativity back into my life. Instead of turning to food, I turned to the piano. I wrote. I joined a life drawing class. My creative self was back! This, alongside mediation, consistent training at the gym, and nutritional love meant that - over time - I became free from my depression and eating disorder.

Not too long later, I got (with Daniel Conway’s permission) the tattoo of that image on my back. (Thanks to a very talented artist named Maris Pavlo at Hammersmith Tattoo):

It is a constant reminder to me that I am stronger than I think I am. And that, above all, my creativity never leaves - it always follows me closely, wherever I go.

How I overcame Depression and two Eating Disorders

Christmas was always the worst time of year for me. 2011 was a particularly bad one. Shivering in the cold of my childhood bedroom, I sat - hands clasped around knees - thinking about how best to kill myself.

Hopelessness only scratches the surface of the description - that same feeling I’d had on-and-off for ten years. I was 23. Half my life had been spent in darkness.

I went over the mathematics:

I was finally ready to admit I needed help. So as I sat there, in my childhood bedroom, I vowed to put an end to it. “I’m going to give this one final push - I will put all of my energy into stopping these continual depressions, and these cycles of bingeing and starving myself. If it still doesn’t work, I’ll just kill myself.”

It really was that simple. 

I had always hated the idea of going on medication. (Hell, I don’t even like to take paracetamol.) So, personally, that wasn’t an option I wanted to pursue. Where - then - does one begin on such a quest? I’d heard the term “mindfulness” being thrown around, and I had a certain idea of what meditation was. I wondered if that would help. So - like any good researcher - I hit the library, I read the internet, I devoured information.

In the meantime, I put my name down for counselling at my University, even though this had never been useful to me at my previous universities and schools (I was a Mathematics Ph.D. student at the time of all of this.) At the first “orientation” interview, it was suggested that perhaps writing <a>Morning Notes</a> would help me focus on my Ph.D., just while I’m on the waiting list to see a counsellor. So I was scrawling at various points of the work day, just to get me through incessant ruminations - and that hateful monologue.

I went to Waterstones early on in the quest. It was here that I was recommended John Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. This book was a game-changer, a life-changer. Although Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses were originally for people in physical pain, it’s impossible not to see the similarities between physical and mental anguish in this context.

Quote from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Quote from Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

It’s from Kabat-Zinn that I learnt about Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). It just so happened that Exeter University - my university - was one of the few places in the UK researching MBCT and its effects on depression. I was extremely lucky: the Mood Disorders Centre was on my doorstep. I asked my doctor for a referral to the next available course. 

Meanwhile, my counselling had started. I also joined the University’s Meditation Society which I tried to attend weekly, and I consistently trained at the gym. Three times a week, I made powerlifting the only thing I absolutely had to do, above all else (including my Ph.D.).

Due to high demand, Exeter only allowed six hour-long, weekly sessions with a counsellor. A short time indeed, but it seemed I was in luck again because Dee Bowker is nothing short of a magician - a compassionate, loving, caring magician. She reignited my lost creativity and gave me exercises - one of which included a life-changing visualisation exercise during a silent retreat at Gaia House, a meditation centre in Devon. She pushed me exactly the right amount, and I responded: it was finally the right time for me to heal. So we made great progress in those six hours, and the impact she made on my life has lasted ever since.

Counselling ended; MBCT started. This is a group therapy session, which I found to be invaluable - not least because it allowed me to hear other’s experiences with depression through group discussions (and then reunions). I really can’t say enough good things about the Exeter MBCT course, and - in particular - Willem Kuyken and Jenny Wilks. Not only are they at the forefront of scientific research, but they are the most genuine and kind people you could ever have the joy of meeting.

The course, the reunions: it was all so very, very helpful. I experienced real peace for the first time. I was able to “let go” of thoughts and worries. I was able to acknowledge I had a body, and not just a mind. I treated myself with kindness. In general, I wasn’t particularly happy, or particularly unhappy; I was perfectly content. I’d never felt that way before.

The fact that both the counselling and the MBCT course were completely free of charge is something that - as a student - I am beyond grateful for. I also realised how young I was in comparison to everyone else there. Some of these people had suffered with this crippling disease for 40, 50 years or more. Again, I felt extremely lucky to be stumbling upon the solutions and the people I needed.

A few weeks after the MBCT course concluded, I became depressed again. This was a hard fact to come to terms with - that despite the serenity I had been feeling, I wasn’t “cured” at all.

The depression lasted only two weeks and I survived. And I began to see that that was the difference - I could deal and cope with it better: I could recover quicker. I had trained to become aware of the initial signs, and what to do when I start seeing them. Moreover, being in the present moment in day-to-day life means I am more aware of the times in normal life when I am feeling real, true joy. So any thoughts of “I’ve never been happy. This will never end.” were met with a more compassionate “It’s OK. This is just a temporary feeling. I have felt joy before and it will - at some point - trickle back into my heart again.”

My disordered eating was a lot better, too (a delightful consequence of being kind to yourself). It wasn’t 100% where I wanted it to be, though, so I seeked nutritional help from Georgie Fear, who teaches that continuous kindness to ourselves is the only way (but that's another story). 

Since then, I may have gone into depressions maybe two or three times, but I have recovered quickly. I also finished my Ph.D., I still train hard at the gym, and you basically cannot stop me creating these days.

It’s no exaggeration to say I am a different person because of all of this. It wasn't easy. In fact, it's the hardest thing I've ever done. But it's been absolutely worth the struggle and all the effort. I’m no longer afraid of the problems that haunted me so often in the past because I can let go of them. I no longer strive for perfection because I'm realistic and kind to myself. I’m no longer frightened to speak out because I know so many others suffer from the same issues, and because I don't allow other people’s hurtful words affect me anymore. I try to laugh more, and I’m not afraid to just be. Imperfect. Human. Me.