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Die Wellness. The first time I heard this now commonplace word was probably some time in 2003, courtesy of my GCSE German textbook. Back then, ‘wellness’ had not seeped into and overtaken our health culture – at least, my world was free from its connotations – and instead it was a new word for my expanding German lexicon: easy to remember, difficult to translate, conjuring up images of Germans doing aerobics or Nordic Walking. My edition of the Duden gives a rough definition of die Wellness as ‘good, well, shipshape’, with a reference to ‘light physical exercise as a way to reach desired wellbeing’. There is no mention of avocados or headstands; my Duden gives me no reason to believe that wellness is now a strict and relentless regime that will somehow make me Good.

I don’t need to introduce the more recent understanding of Wellness (with a capital ‘W’) and the industry built around it. I should, however, point in the direction of Ruby Tandoh‘s brilliant analysis of this regime, which is definitely worth a read. No, wellness with a small ‘w’ has been on my mind a lot over the past weeks and months, as I have found myself, relatively speaking at least, not well. And, ironically, as I begin my return to better health, I am finding that many answers lie in avoiding what is preached by Wellness, and instead navigating feeling healthy by trying out new ways of living that are definitely not endorsed by any of our beloved Wellness ‘gurus’.

Now, just to be clear, there is nothing seriously wrong with me. I’m suffering a very sudden onset of B12 and Ferritin anaemia (only 6 weeks ago my iron levels were Popeye-esque), and have to have some extra tests to work out why this quick plunge in blood health might have occurred. But I’m female, semi-vegetarian and training for an ultra marathon: likely this is No Big Deal. One thing that is a big deal: the symptoms of anaemia, which generate tiredness that sleep can’t cure, inability to think straight or remember things, breathlessness and sudden need to sit down and have a rest. I have been able to return to a more functional physical state only a couple of weeks after being diagnosed thanks to relentless B12 injections and some small changes to my diet and lifestyle. And this is where wellness comes in.

This time last year I was in the process of becoming a ‘proper’ vegan, and had just about cut out dairy and egg from my diet. I was also consuming a very large amount of veg, easily managing 12-15 portions a day (hint: veg = fibre). I took a vitamin supplement, as advised by my doctor. I was also doing lots of running, and while I felt like I was doing all the ‘good’ things, I was feeling increasingly bad. I wrote about my vegan phase here, so I won’t repeat myself. I chose veganism for ethical issues, but it also coordinated handily with the sudden explosion of vegan cookbooks and recipes in newspapers: it seemed like a good thing to be doing. Moreover, everywhere I looked I was being told to ‘just eat more’ fruit and veg, and that red meat and sugar-laden supermarket bakes would inevitably lead to my early demise. I also read Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run at that time – there is no doubt that veganism worked for him as a runner, so why not me too? All in all, it seemed like a good fit.

(I appear to be having an anti-vegan rant, but as I’ve never tried to subsist on the meat-laden diet of the Hemsley sisters I can’t comment on that. I only know that spaghetti that is really just raw courgette makes me fart excessively, and the fact that the existence of spaghetti is demonised in some circles makes me very sad.)

So fast-forward a year and back to my health. As I mentioned, I am feeling better. The doctors’ advice is consistent: I need to eat more of the stuff that is deemed poison by many Wellness ‘experts’. This includes fruit juice, breakfast cereal, dried fruit, meat (trying to work up to red meat but am a bit scared), fish, eggs, dairy. I also need to rest more, and do what I can to feel good again. For me, this has included lying on the sofa listening to old REM albums, gardening, walking painfully slowly and shouting at my husband when he keeps speeding up, lots of bubble baths, cuddles with my cat, gin and tonic, time off work, time off from my running schedule, allowing myself to feel rubbish and have a good cry/moan about it, chocolate cake. And lots and lots of  really slow yoga (I love this amazing gentle morning sequence by Yoga with Adriene). This is how wellness currently looks, for me and my current situation.

We all have our own version of wellness and what makes us well. Often it involves tablets or injections, or perhaps a strange sachet to pour into your morning glass of evil fruit juice. We’d be forgiven for thinking that there is such a thing as a one-size-fits-all Wellness, with expensive food and cult lifestyle choices as the main bringer of physical and emotional well-being. Matcha tea, dynamic yoga (with lots of ‘inversions’ of course) and avocados might work for some people, but for most of us a bit of balance is enough, occasionally supplemented with a trip to the pharmacy when things go awry. The fact that there are now wellness ‘events’ where attendees pay to be told how to live ‘healthily’ in one very specific and perhaps damaging way is both mind-boggling and sickening. This whole thing is just one big lie. I know, because I tried at least some of it (I’ve never managed a headstand, I must confess) and it made me unwell. Now, in order to undo this Wellness-induced unwellness I am enjoying bowlfuls of sugar-laden cornflakes with a side of supermarket-bought orange juice and a sachet of something pharmaceutical. I might even go for some red meat at some point. This is my wellness. It won’t sell millions of recipe books and I won’t be writing a newspaper column any time soon, but if it leads me to feeling fully-functional again then I couldn’t care less. And if we can return our understanding of wellness to those smiling Nordic walkers enjoying some gentle exercise before a bit of tea and cake, then we’ll all be a lot better off.

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I had some big successes in 2015: getting a PhD, running an ultra marathon, starting a job that was both satisfying and challenging. But, while I’m proud of all these things, life is so much bigger than all of them, and none of them guarantee stable happiness and well-being for any decent length of time. Alongside these big successes, there was a slightly larger number of small successes; I managed to fix a few good habits in place over the course of the last 12 months, which have improved my happiness bit-by-bit, and which I can carry with me through the weeks, months and years regardless of whatever else life might throw at me.

I ummmed and ahhhed about new year’s resolutions for 2016. Part of me felt as if I should want to improve myself in some way, and so I resolved to drink more water and cut out sugary food just before bed. Both lasted almost the entirety of January (almost), but neither made me happier, and while I might be more hydrated, possibly a little thinner and saving more on dentist bills (see below), the effort required to do both of these things took something away, rather than adding something good to my life. As a used-to-be-overweight person I know that any real changes need to be easy to implement, make you feel good, and have some sort of measurable outcome. And they need to be enjoyable eventually, if not right away, in order to continue with them long-term. Aside from the satisfaction of ticking off glasses of water each day in my head, there was no real carrot to these two sticks. Inevitably I gave up, and I now continue to enjoy late-night sugar fixes thank you very much, no guilt required.

But onto the good habits – the things that really are making me that bit happier each day, and which bring stability and meaning to even the glummest and hardest weeks. Here is my small list: they’re all works in progress, but they have shown me how making positive changes reaps benefits in the long- and short-term.

Pilates
For a long time I did yoga almost every day. Everyone seems to talk about how great getting ‘on the mat’ is; how spiritually invigorating and healing it is, how in touch everyone feels with their bodies. Years of yoga later and I started to feel totally out of touch with it. Don’t get me wrong, I loved yoga in places, and had an amazing teacher when I lived in Bradford who just about saved me. But we moved to York and I just couldn’t reconnect with it; it wasn’t right for me anymore.

Daniel had been attending a pilates class for some time, and so, intrigued, I decided to give that a go instead. One class later and I was adamant that it wasn’t for me. It made bits of me hurt that I didn’t know existed, and I didn’t see the point in doing strange movements that I never had to do in normal life. I knew it was good for me, but it wasn’t fast-paced or sweaty enough to keep me interested. But then I started training for an ultra marathon, combined with excessive amounts of PhD-related stress. I forced myself to go by paying for 7 classes up-front, so I attended those 7 classes, always a little bit reluctantly. And then I paid for 7 more. After 14 classes I could do this:

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This might not seem a big deal, but no kidding, I have never in my life even been able to sit with my legs out straight, never mind bending forwards and touching my toes on top of it all. I could see the benefit, and I was sold. Now, I look forward to pilates. It’s become an hour in my week that is solely for me – all about doing good for myself and tuning in with my body. A hard-won habit, but one I’m sure I’ll stick with.

Flossing
I know it’s really gross to not floss. I’ve tried and tried to become a nightly flosser since meeting my dental-health-freak husband, but my OCD makes it incredibly difficult to floss owing to the hand-to-mouth proximity that it requires. Last August I had to have my second filling, which my dentist put down to eating chocolate before bed. I knew that if I wanted to stick with my chocolate and avoid any more fillings, this had to change. I found a way to make it work for me without excessive hand-washing practices beforehand, and as I kept doing it, I noticed time and time again how great it feels to go to bed with a lovely fresh mouth. Better sleep, (hopefully) cheaper dentist bills, fewer fillings, more chocolate: what’s not to love.

Meditation
Veggie Runners’ review of Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier totally changed my life. Convinced by their enthusiasm, I bought a copy for myself and laughed and cried my way through it. Only a few chapters in and I started to try out meditation for myself: first three minutes, then five, and now I’m up to seven minutes most days. It’s totally imperfect: most of the time my mind wanders to a place where I’m simply unable to observe my thoughts, and sometimes the alarm goes off without my having experienced a second of mindfulness. But just showing up to do it is enough for me; I am more aware of my thoughts, and it’s led me to some pretty soul-shifting revelations about myself and my thought processes. And, I’d agree with Dan, it’s made me around 7% happier for now – there is still a lot of work to do!

Walking
In the midst of my PhD I found myself routineless and lost. I was staying in my PJs for way too much of the day, feeling useless and without direction. I decided that I’d go out on a morning walk each day, before starting work. I’m lucky enough to live right by the River Ouse, where we have the wonderful New Walk, which was built for wealthy Georgians to promenade after their evening meal. It’s lined with huge trees, and there are two bridges crossing the river a convenient mile apart, making it a perfect 2-mile morning circuit, totally free from traffic. I walk this circuit almost every morning, come rain or shine, and it is wonderful. It never gets old: the light through the trees is different every day, the birdsong changes with the seasons and the light. And it’s valuable fresh air, headspace, and time for myself; it didn’t take long for me to reach the point where I simply couldn’t start work without my walk.

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Writing
For years I have kept diaries, and written in them sporadically at best. Last year saw the start of this becoming an almost daily occurrence – something I’d been striving towards for a long time. I didn’t force it, but like the walking habit, it became a daily need. A time each day for me to reflect on what I’m thinking, how I’m feeling, what I’m hoping for. I know I’ll be grateful for it in years to come when I can look back, but it’s also helping me look forwards too, as I try to make sense of where I’m going, and balance up the various things that I want from life. Writing each day is probably the best gift I’ve been able to give myself: I don’t plan what to write, but the words fall from my head as if they’re desperately trying to escape into reality.

Swimming
This was a good habit, but I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit in the new year as everyone in York seems to have made ‘swim at 7am every Monday’ their resolution, and they’re sticking with it, too. But I used to hate swimming, and now I love it. Again, it’s an OCD challenge, but just facing these challenges makes me more powerful. I also used to hate it because I’m rubbish at it, but now I love it because I’m still rubbish at it. I love how tired I feel afterwards: how easy it is for me to run 1km, but how difficult I find it to swim the same distance. I love watching the super swimmers tearing down the pool as I potter around in the slow lane doing breaststroke. I love admiring them yet not feeling rubbish about my own incapacity to swim well in response. It allows me to drift away in my thoughts, one repeated stroke after the next. Wonderful.

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I’m pretty happy with this bunch, but they are all works in progress. As life changes, no doubt some will fall away, but hopefully I’ll gain new habits in their place. There are a few new ones creeping in that I’m keen to get established:

  • Parkrun – I’ve done Parkrun on 3 out of 5 weekends this year so far, and I love it. I really want this to become a regular weekly ‘thing’, as I love the sense of community. It’s so great to be part of something so positive!
  • Blood donation – I’ve done it twice, and I fainted the second time so now I’m scared to go back. I want to make it to five times and see how I feel after that. We’ll see.
  • Shopping local – more to come on this, but it’s our challenge for February, and I am really enjoying connecting with local producers when buying my food.

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I’ve been running for over 10 years now, and have learned a lot of lessons on the way. I think most runners generally agree that running is awesome, and can make a positive contribution to many aspects of non-running life: from overall fitness, ability to run for the bus, self-discipline, motivation at work, being part of a great community…the list is endless. But, as time has gone on and I have seen my life and myself change in various different ways, I’ve also come to realise that there are some aspects of running that aren’t all that positive. During a long run earlier this week, which involved running 2-mile loops of York’s very flat racecourse for 2 hours, I came up with a list of less-good lessons that running has taught me: a much shorter but essential counterpart to the long list of awesome things that running has brought to my life.

1. A marathon is not a diet plan
I learned this lesson the hard way with marathon number 1. I’d gained some weight during the first months of working in an office after my MA, and while signing up for a marathon had nothing to do with losing that weight, I had hoped that it might help along the way. It really didn’t; despite the hard training, my body required some serious nourishing in response, and I got to the start line a couple of kgs heavier than my pre-marathon state. This has been consistent across all of the marathons I’ve done: the amount of training puts my body into survival mode, and I tend to gain a little bit of weight over the course of the 4 training months. Rather than trying to fight this, I’ve come to respect it, and make full and proper use of rest days to allow my body the space that it needs to recover. While running helped me lose 6 stone when I first started out 10 years ago, it now seems to have the opposite effect: when I recently took a month or so off for injury in autumn I suddenly found that my jeans were a bit too loose. Our bodies are pretty amazing, eh?

2. No matter how hard you train, it doesn’t always pay off
I’ve always worked with the mantra that the more I put in, the more I’ll get out, but running appears to be the exception to this. I’ve never worked harder than I did for UT55, and I got to the start-line feeling as ready as I could be, but at only 12 miles in things started to go wrong. The same goes for two marathons where I’ve put in a solid amount of training in the hope of a PB, only to lose out by minutes or even seconds on race day. And, as I push towards the longer distances, my ability to get close to my PB in half marathons has waned significantly. This is the risk we take with running; with all the months of hard work, early mornings, sweaty speed sessions and long runs when we’d rather be in bed or drinking tea with someone lovely – it can all go wrong in an instant. A mis-judged breakfast choice, starting out too fast, going over on an ankle, leaving it too long for an energy gel – there are many reasons why we might miss out on a time we’d been chasing, a finish line or even a start line. Accomplishing a running dream hangs on so many tiny choices and moments of fate. I’m so glad that this isn’t the case in normal life!

3. Some people are effortlessly (annoyingly) good
I’m sure we’ve all been there. You invite a non-running friend to try running, and they’re better than you before they’ve even started. Or the person who shows up to a race totally unprepared but finishes way ahead of you, despite the fact that you’ve given so much of your life over to training in the previous months. This was the case on my first marathon. Oh, and my second. In fact, I don’t think my Dad has ever trained for a marathon, but he’s still managed to come way ahead of me in all but one marathon that we’ve run together. And, miraculously, with nothing more than a week of mountain biking in the Alps as ‘training’, he managed to chop 25 MINUTES off his marathon PB at Loch Ness in September. I kid you not. The only comfort to this is that I share his genes; I just might have to wait until my 50s like he did before I start getting speedy.

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First marathon success.

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Haweswater 2012: the year my Dad had sciatica so ran the whole HM a meter behind me, telling me to run faster.

4. Running isn’t always good for you
I learned this the hard way when I discovered that what I thought had always been a way for me to manage my mental health had turned into a major source of anxiety in my life. Especially with everyone sharing their escapades on social media, it can become increasingly difficult to feel that you are ever doing ‘enough’ when it comes to running and fitness in general. You thought running four times a week was a lot, but everyone else appears to go out five times. And everyone else is doing dynamic yoga and HIIT and spinning, too. And barre, whatever that is. And while you’re relaxing on the sofa in the evenings, everyone else appears to be locked to a ‘turbo’ in their living rooms, burning endless calories even as they watch TV. And then they post a picture of their ‘breakfast’ (seriously, does anyone on Instagram eat more than 500 calories a day?) and it’s smaller than the afternoon snack that you ate yesterday before an evening meal that contained CARBS. Lots of them. I think this is a growing issue for a lot of people: getting outdoors and doing something energetic is great, but it isn’t a case of more = better. I dealt with this by unfollowing people on Instagram and Twitter as necessary, and also by writing about it on this blog. It’s a work in progress, but it has helped no end.

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Sometimes it’s more fun to just lie around.


5. 5km is a tough distance

Another lesson learned the hard way. I did my first ever 5km race two weeks ago, at my first ever ParkRun. I’ve never had any interest in this distance because I admit that I’m just not quick enough for it to be any fun. I’m much more excited to see how far I can go than how fast, hence 5km and 10km races tend not to be on my radar. But this year, I want to try pushing myself to get a bit faster. Nothing super speedy or impressive, but I do want to see my times improve over shorter distances again, even back to how they were a couple of years ago. So, I thought I’d give my local ParkRun a try. Only 5kms, how hard can it be? Whether I was naive or simply arrogant I do not know, but I set off at a comfortably speedy (for me) pace, rushing past lots of other runners and enjoying the opportunity to push myself hard from the start. About a mile in and I was feeling great, but not long after that the lack of breakfast and unfamiliar effort of running at that pace took its toll, and I wasn’t sure if I could get to the end without stopping to walk. Everything hurt, and I slowed to snail pace in the last mile, only hoping that I’d be able to make it to the end. I finished in 29 minutes, complete with lots of respect for all of those people who do a good job at running that distance. This Saturday I set off at a much steadier pace and shaved more than a minute off my time. Phew.

6. Enthusiasm is as important as talent
As I document over and over again on this blog, I love the Lakeland Trails events. I was lucky enough to win a season ticket to the Autumn series in a spot prize back at Cartmel in March, and so Autumn 2015 saw us take a number of trips up to the Lake District to take part in the four Autumn events. A couple of weeks ago my Dad texted me to ask if I’d seen the results from the Autumn series. I hadn’t, since being in the last quartile of every race I’d taken part in meant that I tried to avoid dwelling on how much slower I was than everyone else, but I took a look, just to be polite. What my Dad wanted me to see was that he’d come top in his category and eighth overall – very impressive. But when I looked at the ladies’ results I noticed that my name was also up there – a rather less impressive 20th in my category and 66th overall, but even so it felt fantastic to be so high up on the list. The fact is that it was my love for running in these races, and by no means my running skills, that got me there. And I’ll take that, no problemo.

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In my happy place

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On going vegan.

I turned pescetarian when I was 16, and two years later made the full leap into vegetarianism. It always felt completely right; any worries that my family might have had about lacking energy or poor health didn’t pan out. In fact, paying attention to what I ate prompted me to get fit, start running, and was probably one of the main factors in losing 6 stone. It was a big part of my identity, too. Being one of three Catherines in my university friendship group, I was soon given the nickname ‘Veg’; I had a vegetarian birthday party, and put the icing on the vegetarian cake with a vegetarian wedding (my non-vegetarian husband was also keen, I might add). We’ve enjoyed living our lives around delicious meals packed with greens and pulses, and becoming vegetarian definitely lit the first spark of what has now become my huge passion for cooking and food.

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In 2014 I attempted Veganuary, with mixed results. It felt limiting, and I didn’t like the fact that I was eating processed foods such as vegan ‘butter’ and vastly increasing my soy consumption, but I did notice that my constant stomach cramps disappeared. I also missed butter. A lot. I went back to my normal vegetarian self, but earlier this year I noticed that, without making any effort or conscious choice, I had become just about vegan. Apart from (organic*) milk in my tea, I noticed that I ate dairy almost exclusively at weekends, when Daniel and I would share a pan of porridge or when I’d eat eggs or buttery toast after a long run. I started to experiment a little: almond milk in my tea, nut butter on my toast – I didn’t commit myself to anything, but I noticed that it was quite easy to avoid animal products when eating at home.

A month or so later, and my heart felt like it wanted veganism. I’d been doing some reading and I wasn’t happy about eating animal products at all – despite being perfectly happy with our organic milk at home, having a cup of coffee or even a meal while out started to bother me. I wanted to know about what I was eating; were these eggs in my vegetarian breakfast from happy hens, or was I unconsciously tucking in to something I wouldn’t eat if I knew where it had come from? So I went vegan.

I addressed some of the issues that I’d encountered during Veganuary by avoiding processed ‘veganised’ food; I ate tahini and nut butters by the bucket-load (literally!), and steered clear of processed veggie sausages. I made sure all the tofu we bought was organic, and bought only organic almond and soya milk. It started to get very expensive, especially as my running increased towards ultra-distance and I was hungry all the time. I was eating pulses every day, and bags and bags of greens. The only things I genuinely missed were yogurt and butter, but I kept a large stock of homemade granola, bread and vegan cookies to keep myself feeling chipper (I was still hungry all the time). It was during this period that I gave blood, and was pleased (and slightly surprised) to find that my iron levels were perfectly healthy.

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Writing all of this makes it sound idyllic, but there was a dark side. Plant-based foods are of course very good for our health, but one of the main reasons for this is their fibre content. Veg, fruit, pulses, wholegrains, nuts – all high in fibre. Even the almond milk that I put in my tea was adding yet more fibre to my diet. For a long while I couldn’t understand why I felt so terrible. I was under a lot of stress with the final months of my PhD, pushing myself hard physically, and travelling a lot for work and races: I’ll say no more. I ended up in the doctor’s surgery, convinced that I was dying of something terrible; I felt bloated and tired all the time, was afraid to leave the house in the mornings, and I started putting on weight despite lots of running and exceptionally healthy eating. I had some tests done. Lots of tests. I was secretly praying to be diagnosed as coeliac: I would have happily given up scones and bread for the rest of my days, if only I could have stopped feeling so awful. The tests were all clear – I wasn’t infested with parasites, I didn’t have Crohn’s (thank goodness), and I wasn’t suffering from coeliac’s disease either. The doctor suggested adding some stodge to my diet: ‘does vegan stodge exist?’ he enquired.

No, not really. So I started eating eggs, cheese, milk and all the other non-vegan but perfectly vegetarian things again, and I started to feel a little better. I stopped waiting indoors all morning until I was confident that I wouldn’t need the loo for at least another 20 minutes. Life started to feel easier. I wasn’t so hungry, and I had a lot more energy (mainly because the food I was eating stayed put long enough). Moreover, I didn’t feel that I was doing anything contrary to my ethical values – in my view, sticking with organic dairy and well-sourced eggs is a perfectly ethical way to go about food consumption. I had observed first-hand how veganism simply wasn’t for me, and couldn’t support me physically through the amount of running (and perhaps also PhD-ing) that I wanted to do every week. Importantly, I realised that I could eat in a way that I was happy with, and make good food choices, that would also allow me to feel good physically: the way I was eating worked for my heart, my mind and my body.

Eventually, I started to feel a bit bogged down with all the eggs, and I found myself turning in an unprecedented direction. I started eating fish again, and just before Christmas I had my first bite of chicken since that chicken burger back in June 2003. It tasted bland and completely uninteresting, but it was ethically-sourced organic meat, and I genuinely felt that it did me some good physically.

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Recovery shake of dreams.

Since then I’ve been eating chicken and fish once a week: always choosing things that I’m confident are as ethically good as they can be. I recently saw a comment on Twitter about meat-eaters being basically animal killers, but I don’t think that this is true. The source of our food, from the simple British-grown carrot to the dodgy reconstituted chicken meat of a supermarket-brand nugget comes with big issues, from the question of waste and fairness, through environmental impact to animal cruelty. No diet is immune from the pressures of ethics, and a thoughtless vegan diet can be more problematic than a thoughtful meat-lover’s.

This Veganuary, I’m feeling all sorts of intermittent guilt and disappointment for not being able to take part. It’s a great experiment to take on just for a month, and it can be really eye-opening. There does appear to be a general move towards veganism, which is of course awesome, but it’s a way of eating that simply isn’t for everyone. Whether for health reasons, practical reasons or simply because you just love butter that bit too much, veganism isn’t the only way, and neither is vegetarianism. It’s perfectly ok to be an omnivore, and to find a balance that works in all directions. Other veggies will probably agree that vegetarians are often put on a pedestal by meat-eaters, as if they are somehow better than the regular omnivore, but with the new availability of good food, and the increasing awareness and casual activism seen in this area, this is a distinction that simply doesn’t have to be true.

*since we moved in together in 2010 we’ve only ever bought organic milk and butter. We’re now trying to make sure that all of the animal produce that we buy is organic.

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Note: this is a reposted version of something I wrote on my other blog on 12th March 2014. Most of it is still entirely accurate.
There has been a lot of dedicated time for discussion about mental health issues in the media recently. From #timetotalk day at the beginning of February, to Eating Disorders Awareness Week a couple of weeks ago. Appropriately for me, there was also an OCD week of action recently. OCD is something I rarely talk about outside the comfort of my own home/CBT session, but its presence in my life is becoming more noticeable as I see people rising to address mental health issues via social media, and I feel I owe it to myself as well as any other OCD sufferers out there to acknowledge OCD for what it is, which is probably way more than most people think it is. According to the OCD week of action is was “time to act”, but in my case I’ve been acting (knowingly) for more than 12 years, and I realised that it’s probably time to stop acting. Contrary to the usual mantra, it may, finally, be time to stop acting and start talking, so here we go.
I don’t feel any need to ‘come out’ about my OCD – no reason to apologise or confess anything in particular. Those who matter to me never ask me to, and never question why I behave the way I do. It’s not something I’ve purposely hidden, but have instead come to keep sealed under an ever-tightening lid of reflexive excuses. After all, it’s not something that arrives easily into conversation, and while in retrospect I wish I’d had the guts to say ‘it might seem like I’m a bit weird but actually it’s OCD’ to every new friend I’ve made over the years, somehow that doesn’t quite work in reality. I know that to a large extent it’s down to the endless stereotypes of neatness, checking the front door twice, using hand sanitizer, and so on, and partly down to the trivialization of the condition by so many people who self-define as being ‘OCD-ish’ because they like to iron their shirts in a certain way. Anyway, it’s obvious that the general public’s idea of OCD is completely misconstrued, so maybe it’s time to explain.

OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. According to OCDaction.org.uk:

intensely negative, repetitive and intrusive thoughts, combined with a chronic feeling of doubt or danger (obsessions). In order to quell the thought or quieten the anxiety, they will often repeat an action, again and again (compulsions).

I would also use the word ‘irrational’ here. Often intensely, ridiculously irrational but perfectly sensible and obvious to the obsessive compulsive person. There is nothing obsessive, compulsive or indeed irrational about washing hands before eating. I think that actually comes under ‘good personal hygiene’.

As this is a condition that is very much grounded in behaviours, OCD symptoms are unlike the symptoms of many other mental health issues because they are (often) visible. You need to look closely, but they are there. It has been my preoccupation over the past 12 years to make them as invisible as possible, and while in some ways this has been a therapy in itself, it’s also caused a whole load of compulsive behaviours to stay locked up as habits and reflexes. I should add here that at the moment I’m more on top of these habits and behaviours than I have been in a long time – some days I’m not even aware of the presence of an OCD in my life, and I know that this makes me one of the lucky ones. But when I think back over time and how the behaviours that I see as ‘mine’ have mutated, largely alongside the periods of life that have been the most difficult, I’m generally pretty amazed by the way this thing has taken hold of me. Strangest of all, some of the things that I could never have faced back in the early days of my OCD diagnosis are perfectly fine for me now, while back then I was able to do things that I wouldn’t dream of doing now. And when I see other people doing those things (which I do, every single hour of every single day), my insides recoil in horror and I experience just a prickle of the fear that stops me from doing them myself. Weird eh? However, this also gives me hope that one day I might not be this weird at all – maybe one day I’ll be able to do it all, and that would be awesome.

A little mantra that I go by is ‘get out of your comfort zone’. Usually I’m referring to PhD-related activities, or to running or climbing or even trying a new kind of food or music genre, but in reality outside my comfort zone is my default setting, and it’s when my comfort zone is completely out of sight that the OCD behaviours really take hold; generally during periods of high pressure, stress or upset, or when there are lots of people to deal with all at once. There are other times when I’m able to push those comfort zone boundaries as far as I can, and naturally this is during periods when I’m especially chilled out or having fun – it’s the reason I can run in races (pre-marathon toilets are no one’s idea of a safe environment) and that I’ve surprised myself so much on occasions at friends’ houses when all of my OCD behaviours go out the window and I can chill out with a glass of wine. Those days are the best.

The worst thing about having OCD is that it’s all-consuming; there are very rarely periods of down-time, even when I’m well within the boundaries of my comfort zone. It’s a bit like being stuck in a cage, which shrinks and shrinks as anxiety increases, until the bars are squeezing in too tight and the noise is too loud and I’m pretty sure the only option is to self-combust. There have been times when I’ve rushed out of a shop halfway through buying something at the checkout, or thrown out large quantities of food ‘just in case’, or whole days when I haven’t had a glass of water or something to eat, just because I was too stuck in that tightening cage to be able to grab on to anything rational to help pull me back out. It’s here that I quietly recognise the very tiny number of people (n=2) who I’ve shared my thought-processes in detail with – one of whom has meandered slowly out of my life, and the other who has committed to putting up with me for life – and their patience and resilience in the face of these unpredictable reactions to normal life situations. Living with someone with OCD is pretty tough – walking on eggshells would be an appropriate expression – as OCD eyes and ears are constantly looking out for threats to the safe (for me) environment of home. I’ve trained myself not to look as Daniel hangs out the towels or empties the dishwasher, but there’s still that rush of fear when I hear him going about these perfectly normal jobs without my standards being imposed on him as he does so. Imagine having to do every task yourself in order to make sure everything conforms to the rules of an OCD. Exhausting. Equally exhausting are the myriad ‘normal’ tasks that come with being an independent human: I could write a whole blog post on the intricacies of making a cheese sandwich with OCD.

Most people have to face their biggest fears at certain times in their lives. Some people choose to do it – climbing the Eiffel Tower and peeping over the edge of the top balcony, doing a sky dive – while others just go for it when presented with the opportunity – picking up a spider and popping it safely out of the window, stroking a dog – and then there’s the awful, unavoidable things that sometimes force people to face what they’re most afraid of – taking a trip on a plane, speaking in public. That feeling of relief when you face something that terrifies you and realise that you’re ok, that you’ve survived at the end of it, is not comparable to anything else. Relief combined with pride combined with the aftershock of terror, sort of like being drunk momentarily – it’s quite a good feeling, from what I can tell from my own experiences of jumping off things or peering over things or talking in front of large numbers of people. Similarly, while it’s been a while now since I ‘faced’ door handles, and over a year since I mastered the technique of eating a tangerine without touching it with my hands, still every time I do these things (every day) I notice, and my stomach sort of flips and the cage bars rattle, and then I remember that it’s ok because I’ve ‘survived’ it now hundreds of times in a row*, and then my heart and my head do a little victory dance together, and slowly those bars get a little bit further away. I call these moments small victories, comparable to jumping out of a plane time and time again, forever grateful for surviving, yet always aware that next time I might not. So then I touch the nearest chair or doorframe, just in case, and continue on my way.

Edit: Rose Bretécher is doing some great work raising awareness of OCD, and in a recent article criticized a hideous report on Good Morning Britain where Michelle Mone talked about how having OCD was great because it made her more organised. Rose details a list of some of the common intrusive thoughts that OCD sufferers deal with. These include intrusive thoughts about sexual violence, fears that you might want to murder or harm your child and fears that you may be terminally ill. I would also add to the list the fear that someone you love has died (every time the phone rings) and the belief that everything you touch is contaminated.

If you like to laugh while learning about OCD then check out my friend Adam’s stand up set,OCD Octopus!

*here I pause to tap on the coffee table, just in case

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We spent a few days in the Lake District at the beginning of September. We camped in Seatoller and took the opportunity to climb Scafell Pike on the Thursday, and then headed to Keswick for some B&B luxury the next day, in time for the Lakeland Trails event on the Saturday. Even before the start of the holiday I’d been experiencing some strange (and pretty nasty) aching in my ankle, and had barely done any running in the two weeks before the event. I climbed the mountain fully aware that it might put an end to my hopes of running that weekend, and when I was able to run I did so with full acknowledgement that I wasn’t doing myself any favours. My ankle was fine for the first few miles, but 9 miles of technical trails were just about enough to make walking painful the following day.

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Photo courtesy of James Kirby

I wasn’t surprised when my doctor told me that I’d need to stop running. What did surprise me was that I was totally ok with that. For the first time, I listened to the advice I was given knowing that I would pay it some heed and not push myself. Something about pushing myself has become old news around here – it no longer interests me, and not running turned out to be one of the most revealing (at times painfully revealing) experiences I’ve had in a while.

Not running allowed me to address all of my reasons for being afraid of not running, and in turn, allowed me to reassess all of the reasons why I run. I realised that running had become much more a part of my life than it should be; my weeks were planned around when I would run and what sort of running I wanted to do; there was a non-negotiable commitment to the plans I had made, and, well I guess I had become a bit boringThe idea of going three consecutive days without a run had become unthinkable – I ran on holiday, on days off, when I was more in need of pyjamas and pizza than exercise…every part of my life was tied to running in some way.

So, when I stopped, the first thing I noticed was relief. I was tired, and actually, I was a bit bored of running; a break was good news. The surprise here was that I didn’t frantically start rushing out to a spinning class or on daily bike rides instead: I upped my weekly swim to twice a week and, if the weather suited, went on a short bike ride at the weekend. I couldn’t really walk far (my Doc advised to avoid walking where possible), so I paid more attention to the unavoidable walks that I had to do, appreciating the time outdoors as much as I possibly could.

I also noticed that I didn’t become depressed. I had been convinced that my mental stability absolutely depended on running: nope, I was wrong. Of course, getting outside and moving is essential for good mental health, but so is coffee with friends, long morning lie-ins, quality husband time, an evening with a great book and furry cat cuddles. And, as the constant pressure on myself to get out running five times a week was no longer there, I felt in a much happier place then I’d been in a while. If anything, not running removed a huge burden from my life. Because running had become a burden; the thing I thought I did to keep myself happy was making me unhappy.

And this leads me to The Space. I would perhaps have been tempted to refer to this as The Gap previously – the idea that stopping running would leave a big gap in my life and I’d just sit feeling sad, getting fat and being bored (I am a bit ashamed to be typing these words, but I think it’s true of how I used to feel). But no, suddenly there was space. I got in touch with the friends I hadn’t contacted in a while, I went to my favourite coffee shop on empty afternoons and treated myself to some reading time, I stayed in my pyjamas until noon on Sundays, I bought myself some new things. I applied for (in one case successfully) some exciting jobs and took part (unsuccessfully) in a baking competition. I made bread for the first time in ages and stocked up on homemade jams and chutneys using veg from the garden and foraged blackberries. I made homemade ketchup – red and green! I visited my family for Sunday dinner and spent an afternoon at a rugby game in my home town. It’s not that I never did things things before, but before they always had to fit in to ‘a busy schedule’ of keeping up what I thought was my favourite hobby. It turns out that grassroots rugby and mushroom pie is really quite fun too. Life became fuller than it’s been in a long time, and at the same time there was more space to sit and breathe, slowly.

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The best loaf of bread I’ve ever made

Of course, there were moments when I desperately wanted to run. This is the best time of year to get out there, and the weather has been perfect for long Sunday runs. It was those moments when things were most difficult that I was able to find something new and exciting. This is where I was able to really question myself – am I a runner or not? Do I ever want to run again? For about three weeks I was convinced that I had to stop running altogether, and those moments were the only glimmers of what the future might hold as a runner, and not as a non-runner. On many an occasion I sat on the floor with my eyes closed, in a sort of meditation I suppose, and just listened to what my thoughts were telling me. This non-running existence is slower, unpressured; life is fuller, more peaceful; I am happier and more whole. It didn’t take long before it was obvious that this weird paradox where we run marathon after marathon as a way of justifying or finding worth in our actions and existence – well, it’s just another excess of modern life. To a certain extent running has become a consumer product, like a designer handbag, perhaps. We want more and more, because the getting, rather than the having, feels so good. It does feel good – there’s no denying it – but it also makes us feel bad, guilty, not good enough. And thus the cycle begins. I half-speak for myself, but I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Finally, eventually, I came to the place that I’d been looking for. I realised that the important part of my non-running journey had passed, and I was left with a sensible balance of wanting to get out running and not wanting to ever feel pressure ever again about doing or not doing something that I choose to do for fun. It took four weeks for the thought processes to gather in a happy place where I no longer felt fear about not being injured any more, or about starting running again (and having to make the decision about whether or not I would). Finally I was comfortable about starting again with a new ‘only when it feels good’ approach.

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Four weeks isn’t a long time – could you do it? It was one of the nicest four weeks I’ve spent in ages. Oh, and in answer to the inevitable question, I don’t own a set of scales, but my slightly-too-tight-to-wear jeans now fit nicely; I wonder if this is my body’s response to relaxing and being allowed to regulate itself without constantly fighting for energy? It was hard to accept that I was feeling this way about running, and I’m glad that I was forced into it with an injury because I never would have taken the time to stop otherwise. After the break (and still with an ankle that needs caring for) I was glad to start running again, but now my sole goal for a run is to feel good and shake off the day (I’m yet to manage a morning run – I’ve become too fond of lazy breakfasts with my husband). So far I’ve been paying attention constantly to how I feel when I’m out, and questioning my reasons for getting out there. Never again do I want to find my running schedule on auto-pilot, where a hobby turns into a burden and thus a drain on my quality of life.

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A year or so ago I wrote about living with OCD on my other blog. After years of hiding a massive part of myself away from pretty much everyone around me, it was a relief to confess the inner workings of my mind to friends and family, even if it had to be via an impersonal blog post. OCD is back in the public eye again this week with a Horizon documentary exploring some of the neuroscience behind this condition, and I can’t help but feeling more aware of my own experience of OCD now that I see people discussing it on social media. I didn’t watch the documentary myself, but was overjoyed to see so many positive and sympathetic comments from people on Twitter this morning.

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I have to add here that this condition is different for everyone – no one story is the same, and in my case at least, the story has a number of very different and sometimes entirely incoherent chapters. Even my own story at one point is not the same as my own story at a different point. OCD does not make sense; it’s tricky to deal with.

OCD means that most of my life is careful, spent avoiding things and situations, hiding away or trying to make day-to-day things easier. But there’s one really massive thing that contradicts all of this completely: you guessed it, running. Running somehow frees me from anxiety, and over the years I’ve found that it helps me move forwards, allowing me to rebel against some of the things that hold me back the most. Recently I’ve noticed myself doing things that I’d previously been unable to do: drink water from plastic cups at aid stations, use portaloos, high-five cheering kids as I run past. I did panic when I checked my number for the UT55 (553) to find that it added up to 13, and you’ll probably never find me grabbing a handful of jelly babies from a kindly spectator – but slowly I’m getting there.

There’s something about running that makes things possible; it’s a freedom that doesn’t exist in any other aspect of my life. I’ll gleefully run through a muddy field and return home covered in dirt, but when it comes to sitting on a friend’s sofa or flicking through a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room I’m often totally stumped. I’m sure that medical types would tell me that it’s the release of serotonin during running that temporarily releases me from the grasp of OCD (which is often treated with SSRIs), and while I’m sure that they know more than me about this stuff, I’d also argue that there’s something primal about running that strips us of all of the complicated cognitive stuff that comes with being a human.

Marathon running might be quite an extreme example, but I’ve found that the more I push myself to my limit, the more I am stripped to my most basic of needs: water, food, and eventually, rest. When I’m tired and dehydrated during a hot run, the promise of water from a plastic cup gets me through, regardless of the phantom fingerprints on the cup and bits of dirt and dust in the water that would usually leave me going thirsty. I don’t think twice about drinking water with bits of road in it during a marathon, but won’t touch the cups at conferences; the need to hydrate so that I can keep moving forwards is urgent enough to allow me to forget all of the ‘what ifs’ (not always, but increasingly often).

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The view from the top of the biggest hill on Keswick Half Marathon. Run and conquer!

But more often than not I’m running around the streets and trails of York, and am not about to keel over from thirst or exhaustion. Still, the moving forwards appears to work as a metaphor, as I run – almost literally – from the plague of worries that circle around my head. I remember during my very first months of running outside, a large fly flew right into my mouth. I stopped for a second and gagged a little bit, which was enough time for the sirens to go off (who wouldn’t be grossed out by that anyway?). I had no choice but to keep moving forwards, and as I did the sirens began to quieten a little, as if I was running away and leaving them all behind me. Running is an amazing way to calm down stresses and anxieties, so it makes sense to me that it would help to dampen the obsessive thoughts from OCD, too. When I recently took on a whole mouthful of dirt at the Lakeland Trails marathon, my immediate thought (after checking all of my teeth were in place) wasn’t panic about contamination – instead I was panicking that I wouldn’t be able to keep on running to the finish line. As I sat in the First Aid tent with my medal, my mind was on the glory of completing such an amazing race, and not on the fingers of the first aider that were searching my mouth for missing pieces.

In the end, for me the value of running is in the positivity that it perpetuates. Even when the world is too scary a place, running helps me out of the door and gets me back in search of the good feelings and empowerment that push all of the obsessive thoughts and strange habits to the side. When real life becomes difficult to deal with through stress or sadness or whatever, my OCD is the first thing to raise its ugly head; keeping positivity in check through running has been the best way to push the lid down on it, and running is the easiest and most reliable way to do that.

Of course, this experience applies only to me. I’m not saying that running is a cure for OCD – I would be the first to know if it was – but that the positive vibes that I find when I’m running have helped me no end. It gets the bad thoughts moving and replaces them with good ones. It pushes me to an edge where contamination is less important. And it somehow creates a space where I am safe to forget all of the things that I’ve decided are true – it gives me a world without all of those rules and routines, and I’m endlessly grateful for that.

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