20 August 2017

Bali, Bali, Bali...

How people go travelling for 3 months, 6 months or even a year and manage to find the strength to board that flight back home I have no idea. I was in Bali for just 1 month and yet getting out of the taxi at the airport seemed to require more motivation than hauling myself out of bed for my 6:00am yoga classes. However, as the one-week anniversary of my departure from that beautiful country approaches, I have decided to switch my negative mindset of the reality that I am not there anymore, to focusing on the incredible 4 weeks I was fortunate enough to experience.

2 flights, 2 films and 1 entire TV series later, I landed in Ngurah Rai International Airport. 45 minutes after everybody else had left the baggage reclaim area my suitcase crawled out onto the empty conveyor belt. After 19 hours of flying, the relief of knowing that I had made it to the other side of the world with everything that I intended to bring with me was, unsurprisingly, a relief. Making my way to the airport exit I eventually found the driver that would be taking me to my final destination, and there I met the first 3 of an amazing group of volunteers that I was going to have the pleasure of spending my 4 weeks with. It was from that moment that I realised that not only was I going to be learning about Balinese culture, but I was also going to have the opportunity to learn about cultures from all over the world!

An hour and a half drive led us to Penestanan Kaja, near Ubud, where I would be living for the next month. As I dragged my suitcase up the stairs to our volunteer house, I met some of the most special ladies that literally made my entire time in Bali the best that it could have been. From all over the world- Spain, Denmark, Ireland and, well, Barnsley; yet we all had something in common, the desire to travel and volunteer. Every day I would discover something new about their lives and every evening I would go to bed feeling inspired by their stories. As the weeks went on I met so many more incredible people from the USA, Scotland and Germany, similarly leaving the same impact on me following every conversation. It is those moments that reaffirm exactly why I travel- to meet likeminded and inspiring people I would never be lucky enough to meet in any other situation.

Anyway, let me move on before I start getting emotional!

So week 1 was aptly named a cultural induction week, with activities such as visiting the Sacred Monkey Forest, watching a Balinese dance and fire show, learning how to cook a traditional Balinese meal, producing a batik painting and visiting the Pura Tirta Empul Temple. The activities were great to learn more about the culture, but nothing compared to the experience of living amongst the community in Penestanan Kaja. Every time I walked through the village, the locals would say hello with a big smile on their face. Toddlers, teenagers, or elderly people, I never came across a single person that did not make me feel welcome in their village. It was fascinating to watch their daily rituals of leaving flower offerings to the Hindu Gods all around the house. One of our activities was to make a flower offering and having spent 30 minutes making one, I was shocked when I later found out that the women make 100 of them every single day!

Week 2- volunteering! Having spent the first week learning about the lifestyles of Balinese people, I was very keen to know more about the current state of the population’s health. As a healthcare promotion volunteer we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to a local GP who gave a very detailed presentation about common issues within Balinese communities. Having used public toilets in both urban and rural areas around Ubud, I did not need to be told that personal hygiene was a significant issue. Also, having eaten a Balinese diet for a week already (more on this later!), it did not come as a surprise that deficiency diseases and malnutrition were a concern. Of course, it was fantastic to be armed with this knowledge, but trying to utilise it in order to educate a group of 10 year olds with a basic understanding of English was going to be a whole other challenge.

With my volunteer partners we started to plan the topics we wanted to focus on and different activities we could do in order to try and engage the children as much as possible. We decided to use the first day as an introduction lesson and to gauge an understanding of children’s English skills, from which we established that we needed to keep things as basic as possible. We taught topics such as physical activities, fruits and vegetables and hand washing, through the use of picture games, bingo and worksheets. It was fantastic to watch the children engage with the work but also to develop their skills so much within the space of just 4 days. It was overwhelming to see their gratitude for volunteer participation, but also for things that we may just take for granted here in England. On my final day, one of my fellow volunteer partners and I decided to buy the children plastic folders so that they could keep their worksheets safe. I can honestly say that it was the most worthwhile 47,000 rupiah (£2.73) that I spent during my time in Bali. The delight on their faces was an absolute joy to watch- even more so when we awarded smiley face stickers for a game of bingo, which they all used to decorate their folders! Even though I only spent 5 days at the school, it was an incredibly enriching experience. I will treasure those incredible memories for the rest of my life, from the yoga session lead by a lovely young girl, to the leaving party the children surprised me with on my last day!

For my second weekend in Bali, I decided to go away to the beaches in Sanur. Although the weather was not great, it was exactly what I needed- an opportunity to explore, relax and reflect. I walked along the extensive beachfront path admiring the beautiful sea views and café-hopping, enjoying delicious Indonesian dishes. Naturally, as I was alone that weekend, I had a lot of time to think. It was not by coincidence that I decided to fly out to Bali on the 16th July, it was because that was the 2 year anniversary of my hospital admission, and as I sat sipping a glass of orange juice reading my book in Sanur, I was suddenly aware of how different my life is now compared to 2 years ago. At first, the realisation did not quite sink in, but shortly after the memories started flooding back and so did a few tears. I looked up from my book to see the white sand and clear blue sea. What I was viewing right at that moment was what I had been looking at on a computer screen as motivation to recovery whilst sat in my room at the specialist eating disorder unit. Now I was not only looking at it but I could hear it, I could touch it; I had made it.

After a weekend of relaxation it was time for my adventure week! Following the development of a new-found confidence from my uncharacteristic antics last year in Europe (e.g. paragliding!), I was more than ready for some activities that I was only ever going to be able to experience in this amazing location. I was not disappointed with the itinerary of a cycling tour around Kintamani, a visit to a turtle sanctuary, whitewater-rafting down the Ayung River and a sunrise hike up Mount Batur. Similarly with everything that I have come to understand about being a solo traveller, the enjoyment of most experiences is heavily reliant on the people you get to share those experiences with. Fortunately, during this adventure week I once again had the pleasure of meeting some very inspiring ladies, who all had the same determination to get the most out of the activities. Particularly with the sunrise volcano hike, that enthusiasm was exactly what I needed. A little lesson was learnt that day- do not try to embark on a 2 hour trek at 4:00am up an active volcano wearing 5 year old Converse trainers in the pitch black with a dim torch when you have not had any sleep. Nonetheless, although the sunrise views were incredibly well masked by a thick layer of clouds, I was just immensely proud of myself for making it to the top of the volcano!

When I booked my trip to Bali, I was adamant that I was not going to leave without visiting one of the Gili Islands. After some investigation into the atmosphere on each of the 3 islands, my friend and I decided that we would head for the relaxing ambience of Gili Air. Little did we know how much we would cherish that relaxing ambience after the tiring ordeal we had to go through to get there! Without going into all of the lengthy details, we set off at 7:00am and arrived at our accommodation on Gili Air at 9:00pm (we should have arrived at 11:30am!) Basically, we had a 2 hour bus drive to the harbour, followed by a 6 hour ferry ride to a harbour on the west coast of Lombok, which meant another 2 hour ‘bus’ (tin can) ride to a different harbour and finally a 25 minute boat ride to our final destination. Throughout that time we had about 4 hours of waiting between each transport method, as well as being scammed out of a further 300,000 rupiah by locals in Lombok demanding money for transport services we had already paid for. It was an intimidating, tiring and frustrating experience but waking up the following morning to a beautiful sunrise made it all worthwhile. When I look at photographs of the most idyllic beaches, I sometimes question whether sand can be that white and the water can be that clear, but the beaches in Gili Air were exactly like that! Beautiful views teamed with the peace of having no vehicles allowed on the island, the weekend was every bit as relaxing as we had hoped for. Well, I say that, but as an onlooker, watching one girl that is petrified of the sea and another girl that is petrified of fish trying to snorkel may not have quite been the depiction of tranquility! Nevertheless, sitting on beanbags on the beach, eating a delicious meal and watching the most spectacular sunset was enough to bring us straight back into the relaxed mindset we set out to achieve.

With the relentless noise from the 65 roosters residing opposite our house, it was not as difficult as I would have initially anticipated waking up at 5:20am for the first of my yoga classes for my yoga week. As I made my way to the yoga house in the pitch black whilst half asleep, I was already praying for a relaxation session at the end where I could regain those much-needed lost minutes of sleep! As the exercises commenced, I looked out across the rice paddies and watched as the transition from a heavy black sky to a beautiful display of pastel blues and pinks began to take place. With my mind initially preoccupied with frustration and self-criticism about my tiredness, lack of flexibility and inability to do the hardest variations of exercises, it was like watching the darkness of my thoughts fade away to reveal the beauty of a new day. With a free day between the morning and evening yoga class, I decided to spend this time relaxing either by the pool or by reading my book in a local café. This is the beauty of travelling alone- you fill your days with anything you desire! In fact, it was during this final week in Bali that I found some of the most interesting and inspiring people; one man that had literally done the Eat, Pray, Love journey, a couple that had started a charity helping vulnerable women in New Zealand and a group of lovely ladies who I had the most mind-clearing conversations with. Through sharing our stories, you begin to appreciate how no two lives are the same and everybody experiences challenges, but the main focus is how you deal with them. Not only does it show you the realities of life, it also shows you that what may seem impossible is more than achievable.

So that’s my Balinese journey in a nutshell- a wealth of adventures, inspiration and memories. But I know that some of you reading this will be wondering about how I actually dealt with certain situations whilst I was away, and as always, I am going to be completely honest about those moments when anorexia tried to grasp onto those tantalizing strings of vulnerability. When I consider those strings, I think it would be fair to say that as soon as I boarded that plane, all of those were within reach, and I think it would be even more fair to say that anorexia had a little go at tugging each one of them.

There was one thing that I was so incredibly grateful that I had spent so much time working on during my recovery- food rules. I hinted earlier about the Balinese diet, well, lets just say that I was extremely pleased that I have managed to minimise my fear of carbohydrates- refined carbohydrates in particular. Basically, to put it bluntly, my diet for 4 weeks consisted of toast for breakfast, rice for dinner and noodles for tea. Considering that 2 years ago it was taking hours of therapy for me to accept putting a piece of bread in my mouth, let alone the vast array of obscure behaviours I adopted before it even made its way to my lips; I am sure you will now get an appreciation for how thankful I was of all of the support I received during hospital to abolish those fears and behaviours. To say that my time in Indonesia would have been a catastrophic situation is an absolute understatement. However, I think it is important for me to acknowledge that although I ate the food, most onlookers would not be aware of the tiring tug of war battle going on in my head. Serving size, how it had been prepared, greed, impact on body size and lack of control; they all had a go at trying to make me retract myself from the enjoyable situation I was engaging with. However, I was proud of the resilience I have developed to prevent this from happening, albeit an exhausting fight.

Undoubtedly, whilst I was away I embodied the holiday frame of mind. Every day I enjoyed a sweet treat or 2 from one of the local cafes. It became something that I would look forward to at the end of the day, and although guilt rushed through me from all angles- more so from a financial perspective- the strength in my own voice broke through the negativity raging on in the background of my mind. We were fortunate enough to be living in a village with some great cafes, and when you pick up a huge brownie with vanilla ice cream and chocolate fudge sauce for £2.20, there is no surprise that I had about 4 of these during my first week! For me, it was all about remembering that life is for living and if I wanted something chocolaty then I was not going to deny myself that. I was literally having the time of my life with the most amazing company and my issues with food, financial guilt and body image needed to take a backseat to make these wonderful memories.

As with every challenge I face, I try to remember that although the issues are niggling away, the fact that I am where I am right now and not in the situation I found myself in 2 years ago is, in my mind, a miracle. When I think back to who I was- and I mean that literally, I was not even me- I cannot believe how different my life is now. Sometimes all I need to do is revisit some of my first blog posts that touch on my destructive behaviours to realise how far I have come. I still wake up every morning and thank everybody that has helped me along the way to reach this point where I am at now, who knows where I would have been if it hadn’t have been for them.

I guess the only concluding remark I can leave now is, where to next?

22 June 2017

Ten Triggers at a Time...

I was hoping to save my next blog post for a really positive one about my work experience placement at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, but having seen something yesterday evening, I simply had to write this down to prevent it from circulating my mind.

Last night, as I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed, I paused at the sight of a film trailer. I did not have the sound on, did not read the caption, but as the first second of the clip played I instantly felt slightly uneasy. A girl sat at a table, presented with a meal and the subtitles popped up ‘280 for the pork, 350 for the buttered noodles…’ and that was all I needed to see. In a moment, I was transported to a time where those exact calculations used to reel off in my head at each and every mealtime, referring to the mental list of ingredients and their calorie content I had filed away at one side of my brain. As the trailer progressed, my initial thought was confirmed- similarly to 13 Reasons Why, Netflix have created a film based on another tragic mental health issue, To The Bone.

I tried to stop myself from watching the entire 2:15 minute clip, but I wanted to know. I wanted to know exactly how the illness was going to be portrayed. Would it follow suit with most media representations- glamourised, insignificant, a lifestyle choice? Or would it resemble the pain, suffering and helplessness of what it is really like to suffer with the condition? Either way, I knew there would be nothing I could do about it, but I prayed that the film trailer would highlight the topic in a way that was true to life, albeit not as harrowing.

But that 2:15 minute clip was enough for me. I saw everything that I needed to see- and more. Not only did I watch many of my past behaviours, triggers and battles, but I also recalled every moment that I had to endure them. The calorie counting, the over exercising, the hospital admission, the therapy groups, the fear on my families face- I relived it all. Fortunately it did not have a lasting impact, but that was when I realised that it was too soon. I am not ready to sit and watch a film that details and exact replication of my life 2 years ago. It is too raw, too painful. Even though I am so open about my experiences and recall my journey day after day, it is somehow different. I am able to present my story truthfully, with honesty and positivity; yet watching a generalised representation of an individual’s battle with the illness and being able to identify with many of her difficulties, I am not prepared to put myself through that.

Please, do not get me wrong, I am pleased that eating disorders are becoming a topic of conversation, and I am sure that the film will highlight an array of behaviours and symptoms to raise awareness. However, I fear for the vulnerable people out there who may watch the film and misinterpret the severity of the story of what is being told. I also fear for the vulnerable individuals, such as myself, who are still in those early stages of recovery and are susceptible to the triggering content. This is why I have had to accept that this is not something I am prepared to subject myself to. I have come so far and still have a long way to go, but this is not a hurdle I am willing to position in front of myself.

I hope that some of you reading this blog post will just take a few moments to really consider your motivations for watching the film, and reflect on your own state of mind before making that choice. Why would you want to watch it anyway- I would much rather watch Bridesmaids any day!

31 May 2017

One Long Summer at a Time...

And so it begins. 130 days to fill. For the past 9 months I have constantly had things to focus on- assignments, volunteering and socialising, leaving little room for my eating disorder to make a potentially catastrophic reappearance. However, as the activities at university dwindled down, I feared more and more about the expanding capacity of my mind that could allow for those negative thoughts to take centre stage. I know just how quickly anorexia can grasp onto any sense of vulnerability and as part of my recovery plan that I formulated following my discharge from hospital, having something to focus on is a crucial aspect of my ongoing journey. Plus, if you have not gathered already from my previous activities, it is not in my nature to just sit around and do nothing. So, in preparation for this long summer, I started my research into things I could do way back during the Christmas break. Two weeks in and the first of my ventures are already underway.

I found out about Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire through a family friend and was instantly intrigued as to what the organisation was all about. As soon as I looked at the website, I realised that this was a fantastic opportunity to develop both my personal and professional skills through another volunteering placement, and it involved lots of roles that I enjoy doing. When I saw the ‘About Us’ page, I knew that my passion to help others that are using services in the local area would be satisfied.
Here is Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire’s description:
‘Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire works to help local people get the best out of their local health and social care services. Whether it's improving them today or helping to shape them for tomorrow, Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire is all about local voices being able to influence the delivery and design of local services. Not just people who use them now, but anyone who might need to in the future.’
If I am honest, even though I have had my fair share of using an array of healthcare services (or those available anyway!) in the East Riding, I had never heard of Healthwatch. I had no idea about what they do, how much involvement they have in speaking to local people and how much they care about making a positive difference to people’s experiences whilst using health and social care services. But I wanted to find out more. Soon after my application form was submitted I was invited to go for an interview.

It was not long before my diary was filling up with training and volunteering opportunities and I could not be happier with my experience with the organisation so far. I have asked on several occasions if I could help out more than initially suggested, and although I don’t feel as though I am making a huge difference, the staff members are so appreciative of any work that I am offering to undertake. However, they are nowhere near as appreciative as I am of them. I have been made to feel extremely welcome and am constantly encouraged to use the skills I possess. Aside from that, the chance to be involved is also massively improving my mental health. Being able to apply my mind to research tasks, take part in Enter and View visits and inputting survey data, are all activities that I enjoy and keep me focused; not only on a task, but also on my recovery.

I know a lot of people will be confused as to why I opt to volunteer instead of finding paid work, and to be honest I would be too. Of course, I would love to have a job to earn some money over the summer, and this would definitely help with the lingering difficulties I experience surrounding financial guilt, but with the summer I have lined up this was just not a feasible option this year. Money is still a significant aspect and challenge throughout my recovery, and reassurance from my parents has been a constant feature of my daily life since leaving university back in December 2014. I constantly feel like I do not deserve to be in the fortunate position my parents have allowed me to be in, but I am gradually starting to accept it, albeit with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and appreciation on a scale that I feel I will never be able to express to them. However, I know that I find myself in this situation because I am trying so hard to grasp any opportunity that comes my way to hopefully benefit my future in the long run. Therefore, volunteering has become a huge aspect of my life and I enjoy every moment of it.

Dedicating your time to other causes is such a rewarding experience and something I would recommend to anybody. It gives you the opportunity to learn new skills, meet new people and have a go at tasks that you may never have thought of. Prior to my diagnosis I also loved to participate in volunteering activities, but as I focus on my recovery and try to pave my future career path, I realise how beneficial volunteering is.

I think that as a student that suffers with mental health issues, keeping your mind preoccupied throughout the long breaks between teaching schedules is crucial to maintain a stable mindset. Everybody has different ways of ensuring good mental health and I am fortunate enough to be in a position where I am now discovering mine. As we all know, recovery is not a smooth journey and every day I am finding out new additions to my relapse prevention plan. My little bank of tips and tricks expands with every challenge I tackle, but what may work on one day may not work on another. However, this is what recovery is all about- finding what works for you and having the resilience to not be defeated if it does not work the first time round. I have not appreciated how vital working on establishing these tools will be until the prospect of having 130 days without my life at university dawned.

So my first venture is underway, and what a success it has been already! But this is only the start. I have many more activities lined up and I am so excited to get involved and continue my learning throughout this long summer.

If you are interested in Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire, you can look at the website by following this link:

If you are also interested in volunteering with Healthwatch East Riding of Yorkshire, express an interest via this link: