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Mental Health Mondays

Monday has been my “mental health day” for a few weeks now. Unofficially so since November, when I began attending a support group local to me for people who were feeling down and struggling with life, but more so ‘officially’ this year (alright, this month) when my therapy sessions started.

Every Monday late morning/early afternoon I have a CBT session so I thought, I’ll dedicate my Mondays to looking after my mental health. Obviously I do a lot of self care throughout the week and take time out for my mind daily, but I wanted a day to really delve into how my brain is feeling, how it’s working at the moment, what is playing on my mind and what I’ve not noticed so much in the last week.

I don’t do a formal assessment – other than the questionnaires associated with my CBT – and I don’t journal (because hand writing stuff hurts so much physically – long-standing wrist issue). I would like to make writing part of the Monday schedule, but since I failed at that two weeks running I’m not going to put any more pressure on myself. I still have to remind myself that if I only do my therapy, then that’s OK. Because showing up for that therapy – even though it’s only by video call – is Hard AF.

(For the record, it does not help your pre-appointment nerves when your laptop decides to start in safe mode (for no clear reason), then spends forever fighting over what activity takes precedence (preferably whatever I indicate I’d like you to do, if you don’t mind), and makes you ten minutes late because the Teams app keeps wanting you to sign in even though you are already signed in and you just wanted to follow the bloody link to the meeting that took an age to find (because the laptop was running s-o-s-l-o-w).)

So yes, not exactly my finest Mental Health Monday on that front I’ll admit.

Therapy itself was ok, not as bad as I feared, although coming out the other side I’d say my “Cautiously Optimistic” assessment of it was far more “Cautious” with a sprinkling of “Optimistic”. I didn’t know what we’d be doing other than focusing in on one of my many behaviours that reinforces my belief that at random times I will throw up and never stop. Anyway, long story short (I’m not going to put all the contents of my therapy sessions here, by the way, that’s not my intention for my blog this time around) we’ve agreed that I’m going to contact my doctor and see if/how I can begin reducing my anti-anxiety meds, because I need to be able to feel as much physical anxiety as I can handle in order to try to retrain my brain that anxiety is manageable.

So I came away from the session feeling cautiously optimistic, but also a bit flat. I just felt like I was raking over old ground – even though I know I’m not because I’ve never broken it down and tried to address little bits of it at a time in this way. Talking about it is all good with me. Writing, no problem! Doing something about it – what we’re all about in therapy now – isn’t so fun. Especially when I have the double-edged fear of this therapy a) undoing all the good work I’ve done myself to get into a place I can cope with life pretty OK while b) not even managing to make any progress on either “curing”* or managing the phobia.

So I felt a little flat, and I went onto YouTube remembering I had a Tedx talk saved from a woman who has “overcome” emetophobia. I figured, Mental Health Monday, is there a better time to dedicate to listening and learning more and exploring ALL the angles? My CBT is a big part of my current recovery plan but it doesn’t have the be the only thing – that idea lifted my spirits no end. So, I watched this talk and I agreed with her, but it seemed to underline how I felt towards CBT. That I might just be putting myself through horrible feelings and coming out of it still with this crippling phobia. Because this is a bloody difficult phobia to handle; it starts at a very early age in most people and most sufferers learn to live with it over time, as the traditional and apparently most effective phobia cure isn’t ethically possible with this one.

*Plus I have never truly believed that all mental illness is curable, because nothing can erase either your past or your memories, but that’s a topic for next time.

Although I totally understood every word this young woman discussed in her short Tedx talk and agreed with her, I needed something more uplifting, something to drive towards. I wanted a story of women who are thriving while living with emetophobia and not letting the phobia stop them living the life they want to build for themselves. I went on to watch a few more videos other emetophobic women have made. Now, these were mostly women talking about emetophobia in relation to pregnancy and motherhood – but it hit the right note for me.

One reason I’m doing this therapy now is to be able to handle my fear well enough that I don’t pass it on to my children. I’m doing this therapy now so that I feel confident that no matter what happens during pregnancy, labour and birth, and my kids’ lives, I will not be the mum who is never there.

I’m doing this therapy now for a lot of reasons – but those two, I will admit, are the major ones.

Watching these videos made me think…maybe it’s time I added my voice – my actual voice – and face to raising the tricky and largely unknown world of emetophobia? In a spur of the moment decision, I set my camera up and talked for half an hour. I didn’t even say anything particularly useful, instead I used it more as a starting point for me to further develop into a vlog if I feel it’s a good path to take. It felt like the right thing to do in the moment, it felt like it would help me, and it did. Whether I’ll post it is for another day. Maybe I’ll never do another one, maybe I’ll do them weekly – a bit like my writing, it’s going to depend on how well I can teach myself to thrive with brain fog/writers block/stage fright.

The thing is, only emetophobia sufferers themselves can ever have any idea what life with emetophobia is like. We can try and create analogies to make non-emetophobes get an idea but truthfully, it is impossible to understand it unless you are living it because you’re afraid of something that can happen wherever you are, whatever you’re doing. It is with you everywhere you go because it is a fear of something your body is designed to do to protect you. True of many fears, but emetophobia makes a supreme example of it. Which means we need to talk more about it. A lot more.

Hearing another person talk about emetophobia, or watching them speak about it, is a bit different to reading something by someone else with emetophobia. Whether sufferers feel able to read or listen to people using words like ‘sick’ or ‘vomit’ will depend on where each individual is in their day and in their overall journey – another thing that makes it so hard to even mention emetophobia let alone get a conversation going about it – but it makes sense to have multiple options. You also reach different audiences with each method.

But the critical difference I personally discovered today, is that you can read something and think to yourself, “Wow! That’s so me! I can’t believe this person experiences this exact same thing!”… yet hearing or watching someone speak about their emetophobia provokes discussion. It stirs something inside you, it makes you want to use your voice as well, to comment or to speak to someone and say “Hey, does this make sense to you too?”, or maybe even “I’m so, so glad I’m not the only one living with these horrible fears/habits/anxieties/behaviours/avoidances”.

Whatever you are going through, you’re not the only one to experience it. Trust me.

There are hundreds of thousands of emetophobic individuals in the world.

Thoughts While Driving

Even though it has been a good while since I’ve really sat down and committed to writing, it’s not because I have a shortage of thoughts or ideas, nor is it that I don’t want to share them with anyone.

The problem is one of two things:

My genius ideas run through my head while I’m driving


My mind keeps me awake all night throwing cracking ideas at me and by the morning I’ve either forgotten them, or I’m way too tired to actually action them.

Which is why roughly 5 years have passed since I was writing if not frequently, at least routinely. Any writer will know the longer you leave it, the worse the writer’s block becomes.

2020 was quite the year. 2021, four days in and it’s looking like quite a year. Ah no – five days in. See I’ve already lost track of the who, what, where, when, why and how of everything. Or I just forgot the date…

2021 is a year of intention.

Hmmmm. No, that’s not pinpoint enough.

Scrap that.

It is the year of action. Although, I don’t really like that as my go-to word. I’m yet to carry out my New Year manifestation with Rachel over at Yoga Girl but on the first of her daily podcasts this year she asked listeners to think back to the word that they were drawn to as their goal, or their intention going ahead into 2021. Obviously I’ve not done the 2 hour manifestation process (note to self, prioritise that for tomorrow) but I was listening to this as I was driving – I told you all good things come to me behind the wheel – and for some unknown reason, the word strength came to mind and I instantly felt it. It resonated in such a way I even remember that word today, a whole day later. So maybe I’m onto something, or maybe my word for 2021 will change in about 24 hours? But the word strength came without lengthy or intense conscious dredging. My brain was throwing around the idea of maybe journey, courage, something to suggest my intention of personal growth and intention. Strength came floating gently to the forefront from the darkest, deepest recesses of my brain and I tell you, that word stuck like the proverbial fly to that sticky fly paper stuff.

Therefore I shall correct myself and say that 2021 is in fact a year of strength.

Strength in any way you can think of it:

Mental strength – I made the jump and committed to undertaking CBT and any additional therapy needed to finally, after 25 years, address my emetophobia head on, raw, in at the deep end. I have never at any point in my life felt able to even consider facing up to it. For some unknown reason, at the grand old age of 31 and a half, there has been a shift within me and I know I am ready. Not just as ready as I’ll ever be, but actively ready and raring.

Physical strength – Sure doing a pull up or push up is cool and a fun skill but is it me? Not really, but I do enjoy a lot of different forms of movement, fitness and body improvement and it doesn’t mean I’m not still gonna train to get my pull up and push up. And since getting a Fitbit for Christmas I am in a constant competition with myself to walk further, get my heart rate up for increasing lengths of time, and just feel good about myself. I go through phases of being a gym bunny, I got a lifetime best on weights at home a month or so back by squatting 40kg and deadlifting 70kg. Then I got all depressed again and lost motivation and gains and Christmas happened and somehow I’ve not done any bodyweight training in about a month. So yes, I go through phases, and because I do enjoy these different things I try, I do come back to them. Why do I drop them in the first place? For whatever reason – hormones, weather, my astrological setup and destiny, the alignment of the planets, life – I get really into something but then one day it just does not feel right any more. My passion however is still without a doubt yoga and that is the practice I return to the most regularly. Although if you want to put a more accurate or 21st century term to it: mobility, flexibility and flow training, stretching, and above all else mindful movement. I still practice yoga in the sense of I practice yoga poses (asana) and I’ll sequence my own and follow classes on YouTube (LivInLeggings being my favourite), and I get my zen on during and after. Do I live my entire life around the ancient or traditional practice of yoga? No. But I take a lot of inspiration from limbs of yoga and mould them to fit to my life and to who I am as a person. I meditate, sometimes on the go, sometimes on my acupressure mat. (Which by the way is a LIFE CHANGER. Never did I think several thousand hard plastic sharp points would be so blissful. I’ll write all about it next because it’s That Good.)

Emotional strength – I suspect I’m going to need it. Emotional strength is a different beast to mental strength as emotions are primal, at least to the human race, whereas mental strength is psychological, like another muscle almost. Emotions are connected – as everything is – to the mind and the body, everything is interconnected – but working on it is not the same as working on your physical or mental health. So yes, I intend to work on building better emotional strength and resilience. In addition to facing my lifelong phobia and trying to get ripped.

There is so much I would love to write about and share, but I’ll be honest, right now my brain seems to be screaming the cut-throat action at me. I can see it, right there, the visual like a PR person warning me I’ve gone on for too long and need to wrap up. I’ve ignored it for the last ten minutes but even I know when I’m beaten, plus dinner is ready and I feel I’ve written enough for now, as well as igniting my writing spark and creating a base for my next post.

Thing is, I’ve made a start. I feel like the last few paragraphs have maybe been a bit discombobulated as my concentration has flagged, but instead of seeking perfection or a high word count, or editing for a further hour (I promise I have limited myself to just fifteen minutes!) I’m just going to call it now and come back to you very soon with some more thoughts. However jumpy or bumpy they may be and however much I think it doesn’t flow.

The writing muscle needs a good stretch and strengthen as well after all, I can’t expect it to bend over backwards immediately without practice and routine!

Clarity: Going Into 2020 With Eyes Wide Open

Once upon a time, I used to write. Not fiction, no – mind you, I am still determined to try my hand at a novel – but a blog. I wasn’t just a “blogger” though. I wrote about mental health. I wasn’t just another mental health blogger either. I was lucky enough to be able to turn my vast back-catalogue of articles (each ranging from around 1500 to 4000 words) into a book, which I self-published in 2016, and to reach a massive audience with one piece in particular “A Letter To Those I Love”.

I stopped writing after that though. I stopped writing because I didn’t know how to write any more. I didn’t feel I had anything more to say. And I didn’t want to just be talking about mental health any more, either. I felt like I’d put myself in a box: I was the girl who liked guinea pigs and who had almost a lifetime of mental illness and trauma that had made me who I was.

But who was I? I wasn’t sure. Since 2016 I’ve been through episodes of depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, pain (physical), low (no) self-esteem, weight gain, weight loss, new meds, old meds, loving yoga, hating yoga, hating lifting weights to loving lifting weights.

I think a combination of two things have finally helped me settle back into myself, comfortable with who I am, understanding of most of my quirks and habits, feeling a spark in me again and feeling ambitious for the future. All of which are very conducive to writing. Depression was not so conducive. Even the idea of writing while staying under the duvet all day in bed didn’t appeal, so for a time I slept 18+ hours a day just to avoid the world.

I digress. Turning 30 last year was an important milestone. Those who know me from days of old or who have known me through all my ups and downs will understand what I mean when I say I really didn’t believe I’d see 30. To have made it through my 20s feels…euphoric. It feels like I’ve achieved something by surviving. By hanging on in there through all the pain. I don’t count the years in terms of suffering or pain any more, and to be honest, I don’t consider “time” as a concept at all in day to day living. I don’t think “this is the THIRD WEEK of awful knee pain, I’m sick of it”. I don’t go around counting off the years I’ve been agoraphobic for. I’ve freed myself from time. Somehow it feels like surviving my 20s was pivotal in setting me up for my future.

The second factor in my change in outlook has been work. I left what I thought was my dream job in 2016. I not only helped to shape Guinea Pig Magazine, but I WAS Guinea Pig Magazine in those early days and I was a proud part of it for the first 6 years of its life. It took a long time to let go of my relationship to my former boss, having actual nightmares which on one occasion actually left me mute; physically unable to snap out of the psychological turmoil induced by the pain caused by the whole situation. Today I have no regrets, I bear no grudges and wish no ill-will toward the publication and their team. I’m grateful for what I learned, on the good days and the bad.

I took some time “out” after I quit the magazine. It was also around this time that I stopped my counselling sessions that by then I had been having on and off for 7 years. I stopped writing. In essence, I “disappeared”. In the year or so that followed, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, osteopenia, my eyesight deteriorated quite considerably, and I spent most of my time in bed. When the warmer months rolled around I eased myself back into yoga, and I went really big on Instagram yoga challenges and trying to get picked up as a brand ambassador. I wanted to train as a yoga teacher and set up an online yoga class. I wanted to find validation and to find my purpose through yoga…but also through Instagram. The numbers mattered to me. Breaking 1k followers seemed like such a success! In truth, it changed nothing. I was practicing a lot but was it real practice or was it showing off? Winter came around and I went back to my struggle with daily pain and fear.

But then in early 2018, I decided – on a whim – to start offering to help local guinea pig owners out with grooming their pets. One person got in touch asking if I would groom her piggies for her…and that was the catalyst I needed to consider actually turning that nugget of an idea into a business. I carried on with the yoga but the numbers no longer mattered and I didn’t run or participate in another challenge, or chase any brands hoping to seek acceptance from them. I started practicing yoga for me and had an amazing summer that year of free-flowing self-practice.

My business is what really helped change things though. It is now 2 years old with more than 80 individual clients just in the last year alone. It’s niche. It gets raised eyebrows; yes, when people ask I tell people I am a guinea pig groomer. I also offer holiday boarding and through that came to welcome my third guinea pig into the family. I’ve opened up memberships and free information sheets and there are a million ideas I have, a few major ones I am actively planning to put into action in 2020.

In the time I spent away from the guinea pig world, I was able to get the break I needed from over a decade of constant advising and answering the same questions over and over again…but more importantly, I was able to find my own way. In all my years of advising I have attached myself to someone else and adopted, to a degree, their style and some of their core beliefs. I stopped using certain products, started doing more of this, less of that, no longer recommending or talking to such and such a person… It was easy to be a follower. I needed to step out of the flow completely, stop, and start again from the bottom up. I established how I want to keep my own guineas and what works for us, and kept my mind open to those I had shut out in the past.

Life isn’t perfect, it isn’t pain-free and every day isn’t sunny or full of ideas and motivation. Every day without fail I end up sucked into my phone, opening Facebook, Instagram, BBC News, MailOnline repeatedly over and over, even though I just checked those sites 10 minutes ago. I am a master at procrastination and time-wasting and I am lazy as it comes when it comes to getting out of bed. Morning person I am not. And though these two are improving I confess I do take things for granted and I am still absolutely terrible at maintaining contact with friends and family.

I’m going to reveal a few things that I’ve not revealed before, in the spirit of honesty and openness. I still live with my usual list of ailments that many of you are very well aware of:

Panic disorder

There are additional medical things I am dealing with as well. Adenomyosis might also be endometriosis – I’m waiting on exploratory surgery to find that out. An episode of acute prepatellar bursitis (“housemaids knee”) has turned chronic, meaning a lot of knee pain. That self-injury scar on my left forearm from 3.5 years ago? It’s 95% healed, but I still pick at the surface of it and at any other skin imperfections: since childhood I have lived with the need to “smooth” out my skin or to sate a psychological need to pick at something. Dermatillomania, I think its name is. It’s a recognised thing but it’s not an attractive thing to confess to – that you are a compulsive skin picker. It’s impossible to explain it to someone who has never felt absolutely compelled to do something you know you shouldn’t but it is exactly that, a compulsion. Like an itch that drives you crazy until you scratch it. I used to think it was just a bad habit from childhood. Maybe it is? It is certainly something I learned as a child and acquired as a habit before I could begin to understand it.

It sounds ridiculous now to say that I’m in constant physical pain and on more pain meds than I’d like, but the human brain doesn’t always play logically. In terms of managing the chronic pain associated with the arthritis and fibromyalgia, keeping my body moving helps, as do hot baths, but I still need the medication as well: even though it’s “only” paracetamol and codeine, it is every day, and my goal is to be rid of them altogether. My logical brain forces me to acknowledge and be thankful, however, that I no longer rely on buprenorphine or morphine for my pain; such was the stage I got to a few years ago I basically accepted every drug option offered to me, no matter how potent. Luckily I never became addicted and I didn’t have withdrawal issues with either pain med.

I’m still on quite a few routine medications, around 5 prescription ones daily, along with 5 supplements I believe are helping. And yes, I am still on Diazepam as well. I will be entirely truthful here and admit I am reliant on Diazepam. This is not news as such, but it is an admission. Reliance is different to addiction, but is rooted in fundamentally the same way. Something works to ease the difficulties and make life easier in some way, and you come to rely on it physically, psychologically, or both. I consider addiction to be a much more physiological dependency, a very physical urge and need that takes over mind and body, whereas reliance is more of a psychological dependency – believing (or, as is often the case, knowing) that something can make this easier so why not just take it and make life easier? Diazepam is not something I need physically; I don’t crave it, I don’t need or want to take it every day, nor routinely. But I do collect a script for 14x 5mg Diazepam tablets and 28x 2mg Diazepam tablets every single month. And have done for some years. I don’t usually have any tablets left at the end of the month’s script. Am I addicted? No. But I am reliant on it when I need to go out and about. Not all the time, but I definitely go through spells where I cannot get out the front door unless I’ve taken anywhere between 2mg and 10mg Diazepam. My throat closes up tighter than you can believe possible and until it’s relaxed – with the help of the Diazepam – I can’t leave the house as I begin to panic.

This is something I feel compelled to address. The first step in addressing it is admitting I have a reliance on it, and I’ve spent many months thinking through every aspect of this to the point where I am OK with being reliant on it. In the past I have tried other methods to stop my anxiety, to send my brain down a different path before panic sets in – I’ve tried Rescue Remedy, meditation, earplugs, chewing gum, eating, drinking (sipping at water, not alcohol), Kalms tablets, and I’m on Propranolol which blessedly does relieve the severe symptoms elsewhere in my body. But for my throat and my mind, a few of those things help depending on the day and the situation…but deep down I still think that only one thing can pretty much guarantee an end to the grip anxiety has on my throat and allow me to lose the fear of leaving the house. And that is Diazepam.

Over the last week I’ve had no Diazepam. I’ve been forced to get used to going out without it. Normally I don’t leave the house without it, “just in case” – in those situations I don’t always need them but it is a psychological relief to know they are there if my anxiety spikes to a level I feel is too much to handle out in public. But between the demands of Christmas, a poorly husband (which meant me having to go out shopping on my own etc. for a few days) and a house full of boarding piggies, plus taking on extra work at weekends as well as during the week, I was exhausted – and physical exhaustion combined with mental exhaustion meant anxiety took my throat hostage, locking it into a vice-like tension the second I considered going out anywhere, and it took some larger doses (which my GP knows about) on a few occasions to manage to see through what was necessary. That knocked my confidence and I reverted to taking small precautionary doses before leaving the house – 2mg up to 6mg – just to make sure I was able to do everything that had to be done. Needless to say, I ran out of tablets before my next script was due.

It’s been an interesting week of going without. I’m proud of myself for how much I have been able to do, how much progress I have made in letting go of this need to have this tablet to hand at all times. I’ve not been able to go far – I stay within Huntingdon. Eating out is absolutely not an option. In many ways I’ve gone a long way backwards. Except I haven’t: I’ve taken some big steps forward. I’ve had some “bad” times, but somehow my confidence although swayed has not been completely knocked. Even though it felt terrible, my high-level anxiety didn’t tip over into panic. I just about held on all on my own. It was hard, very hard indeed, to keep myself under control, and I turned to my quirks to try and alleviate and distract: pushing my fingers in my ears (a childhood comfort), looking down at the ground, moving slower and more carefully, delaying or hesitating in getting out of the car/walking down a supermarket aisle/driving past our home street to give myself the option of going home instead of going on to my next chore. It has forced me to turn back to meditation, to practice the gift of mindfulness and practicing actively focusing my brain onto something of my choosing, rather than letting it run on auto (my default setting for years and years has been fear).

I didn’t feel relieved when I picked up my scripts today.

I felt empowered.

I managed to get there and collect them, and even wait for them to be dispensed, without needing medicinal help. My goal now is to maintain this. To use this feeling to maintain this progress. As it stands, since I’ve been going to the local gym to lift weights (~2-3 months) I have not taken Diazepam to be able to get there. I know I can handle it and work through any anxiety spikes. So I know I can do it. I know I can manage at least local trips out, without taking medication to make it easier. Shopping is tough, but I can just about work my way through it. Driving is even more of a joy to me than usual as it forces my focus, and I love the feeling of directing my own brain to do something I say it needs to do, rather than it doing its own thing.

2020 holds challenges, but they are challenges I have invited myself. Some deliberately, others not, but however that challenge came to fruition I am grateful to be shown that I have the opportunity to change. So, between being a housewife and mum of piggies, getting my health back on track, continuing to yoga just for me, to lift weights, managing and expanding my business, working on my relationships with family and friends, getting in extra training and qualifications, letting go of bad habits, and chasing a few goals and dreams (F1 Silverstone Friday Practice we are coming for you!) it’s a positive, if a little exhausting, start to the new decade.

I’m going to treat myself now to a red wine spritzer as a reward for sitting down and writing properly for the first time in years, for opening up as much as I have (oh the freedom I feel!) and for having been out to collect my meds and been to the Post Office on my own after putting it off for the best part of 3 hours! I’ll never have a six-pack or a perfect mind no matter how hard I work, because the work-reward system is too good to give up, and my reward is almost always a glass of wine, or chocolate.

Nothing in the world that can’t be solved with chocolate…

Laura with Wilbur, Hugo and George, December 2019. Photo by i-d Image Development, St Neots.