Hello to 2017

I haven’t posted for a really long while, I know. I’ve had a really rough start to the year and it’s not getting any better.

Just after New Year’s, my Grandad died, very suddenly. It came as a massive shock to the whole family and, as I’m sure you can imagine, the week since then has passed in a haze of grief and fuzzy-headed pragmatism as we try to sort everything out

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Grandad at a family barbecue, July 2016

 

Much of the last week was spent trying to sort through the belongings in Grandad’s house and dispose of all the things nobody wants to keep. It’s a strange experience – it feels sort of like looting, but with half the time being spent on re-living memories. I’ve seen my aunt, uncle and one of my cousins more in the last week than in the last two years or more, which has been nice, although somewhat bittersweet.

But there’s an aspect of all this for which I was completely unprepared. The more belongings we’ve found and the more people we’ve spoken to as we pass on the news of Grandad’s death, the more I realise I didn’t really know my Grandfather at all, and it breaks my heart more than I can communicate here. There are things he has kept that showed a sentimental side I never knew he had. He was a proud man who didn’t like to let people in too far, so finding that he’d kept a big pile of birthday and Christmas cards was a surprise, as was the discovery of all our wedding invitations to him. Then there are the sad truths – how much he was struggling to cope on his own, at 89 years old. How bad his memory had become.

The biggest surprise was the secrets about him. Secrets I am neither willing nor in a position to reveal here but things that haven shaken me to my core, things that have, whether or not they should, completely changed my memories of him, at least while I come to terms with those things.

It has been an incredibly tough week, and with over a week to go until the funeral, I’m not sure if it will get any easier but there’s an important lesson or two to take away from the experience. Tears are like milk – if you hold onto them too long they turn sour. You feel better by letting yourself feel what you feel, when you feel it. Holding back can lead to other extremes, like anger or bitterness. I’ve learned that holding on to random, pointless crap for no real reason just gives your ancestors more to clean out when your time comes. If you don’t love it, if it doesn’t work, if you have no real use for it, then throw it out. And lastly, really take the time to get to know your loved ones. Ask them questions about their life. Share opinions, beliefs, memories, and desires, because you might never know them well enough to avoid any nasty surprises later, but it’s easier to deal with the nasty stuff if you have a lifetime of good memories to offset them.

And on that note, I promise to try to post something more positive next time!

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Hello to 2017

Life’s A Beach – One Year On

This afternoon I realised it’s been more than a year since I started this blog, so it seems like a really good time to recap the reasons I started and consider how much progress I’ve made in this time.

Originally, my M.E was still pretty bad and I was struggling to lead a normal life, so I wanted to find ways to lead as full a life as I could manage, while at the same time trying to carefully work around my symptoms. I wanted to:

  • Clean up my diet
  • Exercise at least twice a week
  • Write every day
  • Send something I’d written for publication once a month
  • Post examples of my writing here, for anyone to read
  • Focus on my studies with the Open University
  • Say yes to opportunities for fun and excitement
  • Document everything here on the blog

Now, I’m not going to lie, I certainly haven’t succeeded on all fronts. Although I’ve written a few pieces on here and posted them, I haven’t submitted anything for publication. Just. Too. Chicken. But I’ve also been remarkably busy. You see, this year I really HAVE said yes to fun and excitement…I’ve travelled to Rome, I’ve been out to pubs, ice skating, segway-riding, cycling, brunching and generally living my life again. In between that, I’ve been working hard at my OU courses and even started a Saturday job at a local pet shop! Between all of that and writing every day, I’m afraid I just haven’t had time to polish anything extra for submission.

That leaves diet and exercise. I’ve definitely been no saint on the diet front. I HAVE lost weight, going from over 10 stone to just under 9 stone, although I am yet to go down a dress size (infuriating, since it seems impossible!). I began a trampoline aerobics class, but at a cost of £8 per class, I simply can’t afford to go every week. I bought roller skates, but have yet to use them since it turns out nobody around me owns skates and I’m not keen on going alone. But it’s not all bad news. I’ve been exercising more often than twice a week for almost a month now. My diet, overall, is good (when I can say no to chocolate and biscuits) and I just need to stick to it better.

Since we got back from Rome in August, my M.E symptoms have been almost, though not entirely, absent. It’s an incredible feeling. Today I did a workout, I had breakfast, I did a heap of housework, worked on my radio script, did our shopping and my Gran’s shopping and cooked dinner. My energy gave out after that but that’s probably down to last night’s strength training (arms), since I’m rather sore! I’m trying to take full advantage of my new-found energy and that’s where my new plan comes in.

I want to get fit. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about weight loss and it is not about wishing to be skinny. I got to this point by trying to look after myself, and now that I’ve come this far it’s time to crank it up a notch. I could post one of those photos people love so much of me in a bikini or my underwear, as a ‘before’ shot but frankly, there’s no bloody way I’m doing that publicly. What I WILL do, however, is take that picture and perhaps post it at a later date, once I start to see the effects. The plan is thus:

  • High protein, low-carb meals with lots of natural produce
  • Cardio workout a couple of times a week
  • Strength training a couple of times a week
  • Severely limit the highly processed foods (aka the really tasty stuff like cakes, biscuits, chocolate, and other deliciousness)

Doing this, I hope that within the next six months I’ll be able to fit into a size 10, and start to see some real muscle definition. I also hope to be able to run a 5K…actually run it.

Lofty goals, yes, but ones I intend to keep. I’ll still be working hard with writing, studying, reading, living and so on, so this could be a really tough time. I hope you’ll join me.

Want to get into the best shape of your life, too? Join me here and on Instagram and let’s see what we can achieve together.

Life’s A Beach – One Year On

Tallow…Is It Meat You’re Looking For?

You’re probably aware of the recent news about the new five-pound notes, but in case you’ve somehow missed it let me catch you up: in recent months, here in the UK, a new note has gone into circulation. Made of a plasticky material, it is designed to be less destructible than it’s paper counterpart, which will be taken out of circulation next year. Initially, they caused great excitement, but a recent revelation has changed all that. Reports that the notes contain tallow, a type of animal fat found in pork and beef, have been confirmed, causing outrage on a national level, a petition to remove the offending ingredient, and an endless stream of discussion.  Some are poking fun at the issue:

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@TonyCooked, Twitter

Others are being rather less tolerant, reminding vegans and veggies they won’t be eating the notes. Even the creator, Professor David Solomon, has referred to the furore as ‘Stupid, absolutely stupid’.

I don’t tend to get involved in debates like these, partly because I can’t see the point of adding my voice to the millions who already shouting about it, and partly because I can’t be bothered with the inevitable petty responses I would expect to receive in response. But quite often I refrain from comment because the issues are not particularly relevant to me. This has now changed and I find myself wading in.

You see, when I was eight, my father served my sister and I a roast dinner, complete with sausage roll (yeah, it sounds a little odd to me now, too). I was roughly halfway through this sausage roll when I decided to give up meat for good. The plate was cast aside and I declared myself unable to finish the meal because everything was on the same plate as the meat (you know, the meat I had been eating seconds earlier). My dad was furious, to say the least. Anyway, although I was initially a bit militant, trying to insist everyone should give up meat immediately, over the years I’m pleased to say I’ve mellowed. While approximately 8% of the population now consider themselves veggiesauruses, I count myself among those who are more relaxed. My husband eats meat that I have been known to cook for him on occasion. I own leather shoes because they last longer. I take a cod liver oil capsule every day because there are some nutrients you simply cannot get elsewhere. As far as I am concerned, you have to draw a line somewhere. For me, that line ends with what sits on my fork at mealtimes.

However, I am concerned about the revelation about our five-pound notes, not from a vegetarian perspective, but as someone who worries about animal rights and the rights of minority groups. As far as the animal rights side goes, I want to know whether the tallow in the notes is a by-product of the meat industry, or whether animals are slaughtered for the purpose of supplying us with waterproof currency. If cows are being killed so that I can have plastic fivers, I’d rather have the live cow, thanks.

My main concern, though, is the minority groups. Tallow has been used for many things over the years, from soaps to candles and even to grease the inside of guns. It is the latter that is relevant to my argument. In the 1800s, British presence in India was strong. Armies were built up using Indian men. We trained them, armed them and used them in battle. So far, so bad. Conditions for these guys were pretty awful, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was tallow, which was used to grease the cartridges they fired from their guns; cartridges they had to bite an end off before firing. Cows and pigs being considered sacred animals to people of Muslim and Hindu faiths, there was an immediate outcry. When this outcry was ignored, rebellion broke out in 1857. The ensuing violence, which lasted more than two years, resulted in thousands of deaths and an unprecedented level of inaccurate reporting, which contributed to ideas about foreign people that continue, on some level, to this day.

We have come a long way since then and full-scale rebellion is highly improbable, even if the notes remain. However, recent changes in political climates have already created a sense of bad feeling towards those of certain faiths and from certain countries, and this change, obviously made without due consideration of their feelings or faith, will only add to the current tension. These minorities have already been made to feel unwelcome in the country in which so many of them were born. There was a 41% rise in hate crime following the voting on Brexit, and with the addition of the new five-pound note, a message is being sent that they are not thought of as part of the citizens of this country, or at least not enough to take their interests to heart.

As far as I am concerned, the vegans and the vegetarians (myself included) could and should be willing to accept this change, given the small quantity of tallow involved, but it is a change that is incredibly insensitive to a large minority of this country’s people. If there is a single valid argument against keeping tallow in this currency, that is the one on which we should focus.

Tallow…Is It Meat You’re Looking For?

The Bitterest Pill

Boys, you might want to look away now. This post is about something I feel is an important, and crucially under-discussed, issue – female contraception. But if, lads, you would be so good as to hang around, I think it can only be useful for you to really understand what us ladies are up against.

You see, I have an axe to grind. When I first became sexually active, I went to my GP. I had heard about the pill from friends, knew it would prevent any unwanted buns from being placed in my oven but I really thought that was all there was to it. I trotted off to my GP, where the conversation went roughly like this:

Me: I want to have sex with my boyfriend so I’d like to go on the Pill, please.

GP: Okay, is there any chance you’re pregnant at the moment?

Me: Absolutely not!

GP: Okay, let’s set you up with this one. Any problems, come back and see me.

And just like that, I started on Microgynon 30. Now, at 31 I can see that a more detailed conversation should have taken place. One in which he checked my periods were regular, if I experienced any difficulties during my ToTM, if I had considered any alternative methods of contraception and so on. More importantly, I should have been warned that the Pill, as with any other form of contraception, comes with the risk of side effects.

In the last 13 years I have changed my Pill four of five times because of the overwhelming nature of the side effects from some of them. Microgynon gave me blinding headaches one day a month, bad enough that I could barely function. As it was only one day a month, I tolerated it for a few years before switching to Cerazette. That one made my skin break out in a bad way but I had been told it could stop my periods completely so I persevered for a year or so. The acne vanished, my periods did not. As I suffered with terrible cramps every month, it had been a key reason for the switch. Disappointed, I went to Loestrin. This pill promised to lighten periods and be well-tolerated by most people. For the most part, it was fine. It might have been one of the better options, had it not given me violent mood swings for a few days before my period. I’m talking Incredible Hulk-style tantrums that would see the cats fleeing for cover. And no, I couldn’t control the mood swings, no matter how hard I tried.

It was at this point I began researching other methods, but all seemed to have concerning potential issues. The implant caused a huge stir a few years ago after a number of women got pregnant while on it – a direct result of it being incorrectly fitted. The coil was a contender for a while, but had to be fitted and removed in hospital, so if anything went wrong (the NHS states this as a 1 in 1,000 risk) it would be both excruciatingly painful and tricky to fix. The Depot injection was immediately discarded as a risk due to the number of women I knew who had compared coming off it to experiencing a prolonged haemorrhage. This isn’t like a normal period, we’re talking constant heavy bleeding for weeks on end. Of course, there was always the option of condoms but ladies, I don’t know about you but frankly, I just don’t find them comfortable. Having said that, if you aren’t in a steady, monogamous relationship, they’re better than an STI. No glove, no love, folks.

At last, I got moved onto Yasmin late last year. My skin is clear, my mood swings are (mostly) under control, but those ‘menstrual migraines’ that I experienced for a day each month on Microgynon are now there for up to a week every month. Some months it’ll niggle away for a few days, hit hard for a couple, then go. Other months I’ll be unable to blink or breathe without pain for two or three days at a time, and I’m yet to find painkillers strong enough. According to my GP, there’s nothing more they can do except try another Pill and of course, that comes with its own price. The list of potential side effects for any Pill is extensive, ranging from depression to loss of libido to psychosis and major neurological problems.

This all makes the idea of a male contraceptive pill rather appealing. For centuries, women have suffered through their periods, and since the 1960s we’ve tolerated the Pill for the sake of sex without risk of pregnancy, so maybe it’s time for men to take the helm for a while. But studies in the last year have shown men are simply unwilling to shoulder the hormonal burden, unused to the effects as they are.

So what are we to do? Personally, my approach right now is to give myself total freedom for a couple of days each month. When my head is pounding, I’m queasy, bloated and full of cramps, I can eat however much chocolate I want, cry if I feel like it and cuddle up on the sofa with a good book or a movie. I’m also lucky enough to have a husband who looks after me. And this is where I put my appeal to any boys who haven’t cried off already: if you have a girl or a woman in your life, spare a thought for what she goes through each month. Buy her flowers or chocolate, give her a foot rub, run her a bath, give her a little extra affection. And if you’re willing to brave it, when the male contraceptive pill becomes available, assure her you’ll give it a try because it might just mean the world to her.

And in the meantime, I’m going to be crossing my fingers for early menopause.

The Bitterest Pill

Phone-Free Focus

If you tuned in to last week’s post you’ll know that last week I decided to experiment with giving up my phone. Not entirely, I’m not completely nuts, but as someone whose hand is welded to her phone 80% of the day, I wanted to try using it only as originally intended – for phone and text messaging. My hope was that by removing temptation, I would trade the time I spent staring at the little screen for something more productive.

So how did I get on?

Day One

Every morning, I open my eyes, kiss my husband before he goes to work, then grab my phone to catch up on anything I missed during those hours of seemingly futile sleep. Today, I must have moved to pick my phone up three times before I was even out of bed, before remembering there was nothing to look at. I had new news apps, no weather apps and no social media. Without the distraction of a Facebook news feed, I was out of bed in minutes. Even better, instead of beginning my day in a fug of news-related melancholy, I did a guided meditation after getting up. I floated through my morning relaxed and feeling positive, and as a result didn’t have a meltdown when my new laptop wouldn’t boot up.

Day Two

Without immediate access to social media or news, I was able to start my day without confirmation of Donald Trump’s presidency, making my morning more bearable than most! In the evening, I helped a friend run a pub quiz and while I love doing it, I generally use the time to catch up on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds. With nothing to do but play songs I expected I’d be bored. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the experience of zoning out to the music and didn’t even notice I was being watched as I sang ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ by Billy Joel. Until I got a round of applause at the end, at least. Embarrassing!

Day Three

I cycle into town, blissfully unaware we areexpecting heavy rain showers. I cycle home later on a rain-soaked seat and end up with a seat-shaped wet patch on my jeans. Neither fun nor comfortable. But all is not lost! I escape the worst of the rain with an impromptu solo lunch at one of my favourite restaurants – Conto Lounge. I would normally spend the time on social media but instead take the opportunity to eavesdrop on my fellow diners and do some writing. I’m sure I also enjoy my meal more because my attention isfocused on it.

Day Four

Getting into this a little more now. I feel less distracted, more relaxed and the pressure to take interesting photographs or post fascinating tweets has passed. I still have my moments – watching a film leaves me itching to look up some of the actors on the IMDB app but I resist, allowing myself to simply enjoy the film.

Day Five

The majority of the day is a breeze – I’m not allowed to use my phone while I’m at work so not having it on Saturdays is no longer an issue. But when I get home I’m exhausted and desperately want to hide myself in my Facebook news feed. I do another guided meditation instead and accidentally drop off to sleep on the sofa. When I wake up I allow myself to scroll through Facebook – but on my laptop, not my phone.

Day Six

I start my day with a gorgeous cooked breakfast in bed, I study without interruption and I help my husband battle the disaster zone that is the spare room. Replacing the mindless time I spend messing with my phone with something more productive means that for the first time in months the house is looking cleaner, my work is up to date and I have time and energy for things I really enjoy. I read, I cook, I play with my cats and I spend time with my husband.

 

The Outcome

In all, it’s obvious to me (and probably to you as well) that although I missed having many of the apps on my phone, my quality of life definitely increased without them. I felt more alert, I had more time and I got a hell of a lot more done. But it would be silly to deny that these apps in some way enrich my life as well. Had I checked the weather app before my cycle, I could have avoided the worst of the bad weather. And as a writer, staying current with the news is important, so being one of the last people I know to discover America’s new president was Trump was disappointing. So what have I learned? I’ve learned I DO use my phone too much and that it can be upsetting to some (both my husband and a couple of friends have bemoaned my constant phone usage), but removing access altogether isn’t feasible. What I have taken from this is that it’s okay to use my phone and the apps on it, but maybe I need to use them all a little less.

Could you give up your phone apps for a week? Perhaps you only ever use your phone occasionally already? Why not share your experience in the comments below?

Phone-Free Focus

A Letter to America

The election is over, the ballots have been counted and a new president has been chosen. Is it as fair with this as with any other election to say democracy has spoken and yet, for so many of you, the outcome you see is the one you most feared.

It would be easy, at this point, to turn these few words into a bitter diatribe against your new president – a man noted for his racism, sexism and generally unethical nature – but now is not the time. A million words were used in the fight to prevent his win and they have not altered the uncertain future you now face. Re-hashing it all will make no difference.

Perhaps instead it is better to focus on the future, and on that crucial word ‘uncertain’, for in that word lies hope. For so many of you, the fear over what lies ahead looms, with visions of walls around Mexico, KKK resurgences and mass deportations all apparent possibilities. In the face of such eventualities, the future seems grim and frightening. Here, in the post-Brexit UK, there have been similar fears, and only a minority have been justified in comparison to the overall population. Our process is incomplete, our own future uncertain, but I say to you the same as to those of us in the UK:

You can fight this.

I am by no means inciting violence in these words. There are other ways in which we all can fight. Suffragettes marched, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, hippies staged peace marches, rallies and sit-ins. There is always something you can do. In a world dominated by social media, voices are easily lost in the maelstrom, so don’t forget it is an ally AND a took. If you find yourself persecuted, find others who feel the same and make your voices heard. Protest peacefully, yet forcefully, and let social media spread your words. There is more strength in love than in hate. Remember that. Use it, and be better than the man who will guide your country. Be brave in the face of the fear he spreads. Spread love against his messages of hate. Now is the time to reject complacency in favour of the chance to make something – BE something – great. Your complacency is how he truly wins. Don’t let that happen.

America is YOUR country, not his, and you should fight like hell to keep it.

With love.

A Letter to America

The Reboot

I’ve had kind of a rough time recently.

A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with a stomach issue that was reasonably well controlled with medication until the beginning of August when everything went a bit wrong. Then it went really wrong after we got back from Rome and it’s been getting worse ever since. Unfortunately, I’ve been told such problems are common in coeliacs. I last saw my ENT in May and I can only assume that afterwards his fingers mysteriously dropped off, rendering him unable to respond to my messages pleading for help. Poor man. In desperation (and to stop my constant whinging) my parents kindly put up the funds for me to see a private gastroenterologist, who was sure to help me.

The rushed, albeit fairly kind, lady I saw didn’t really have an answer I had hoped for. While there is an op that could (I repeat ‘could’) cure me, it would first require a manometry.

A what!??

I had never heard of such a thing! She explained they would feed a tube up my nose, down my throat, and into my stomach, while I was fully conscious. They would then leave it there and send me home to have a jolly old time eating and drinking everything that makes me feel poorly – tea, coffee, alcohol, spicy foods, chocolate. Once I was feeling spectacularly sick (and yes, able to feel the tube hanging down the back of my throat at the same time), I would return to the hospital to have the tube passed back up my throat and out of my nose. Such larks! If that sounds bad, let me tell you that experiences across the net are not favourable. Most patients report endless gagging, tolerating it only for a few minutes.

After I ran screaming from her office I decided to start looking at alternatives and settled on trying to fix my stomach through diet. Last week I removed everything from my diet but potatoes and my gluten free bread, the idea being that a super-plain diet for a time will be like pushing the ‘restart’ button on a computer. Once my stomach has rebooted, I’ll start introducing foods S-L-O-W-L-Y, each for a few days at a time, removing anything that could be linked to my symptoms. This plan was disrupted on day four, by which time I had become a bear in hibernation; grumpy, hungry, and too tired to function from the lack of nutrition. I brought back eggs, peas, porridge, Quorn, celeriac and soya yoghurt and felt thoroughly rotten again.

So now I’m back to eating relatively plainly again. The peas, Quorn, porridge and celeriac are sticking around but I’m dropping the yoghurt and eggs for a time to see if things calm down again.

With this going on, it’s been really hard to focus on anything and my studying and work is starting to suffer while I curl up on the sofa, playing about on my phone for hours on end. So here’s the plan: for the next week, I’m ditching my phone. Not completely, but after being called out by three different people for ‘always staring at that bloody thing’, I decided we need a slight parting of the ways. From tonight, I’ll be using my phone ONLY for calls and messages. To remove temptation, I’ll delete Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, IMDB, Gold, Amazon, email, BBC Weather and Fitbit. Rather than losing (what is probably) three hours a day at least just staring at my phone, I hope I’ll be more productive, more energetic and will be more inclined to give meditation and yoga another go. It’ll be like I’m 16 again, wielding my Nokia 3310 with its jelly keys while playing in the road with my friends. Except it’ll be a Sony Z5 and I’m probably too old to play in the road. But you get the idea.

Of course, I’ll still be able to access everything from my laptop in the evenings but this should be an interesting experiment in how much our current phone usage distracts us from more positive activities in everyday life.

I’ll report back next week but in the meantime, if you want to join in then please do, and it could be very interesting to look at the results next week! Could you give up your phone? Maybe you would find it too hard? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below.

The Reboot