Lesson 31: giving death a voice

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What do you say to someone when they tell you a loved one has died?

What do you wish people would say to you?

If there’s one life lesson worth sharing, surely it has to be this? It’s the hardest thing to think about, let alone talk about, but how are we meant to even begin to understand something we very rarely confront?

I am not a councillor and I do not have lots of experience dealing with grief, but I do have a strong belief that words can make you feel better. The mantra and purpose of my blog is to connect people through the shared experiences we don’t always draw attention to, and I think one of hardest things about grief, is that we do not talk about dying enough. It’s a terrifying taboo not worth thinking about, so no wonder we struggle the way we do when we lose someone close. The other side of the coin, of course, is that there’s always a danger of obsessing over death. The final-ness of death can consume you if you let it. Most of us choose to brush the idea under the carpet until we really have to face it.

Earlier this year, when I started to struggle more and more with OCD, I thought about dying all the time. More precisely, I worried about dying all the time. It snuck up on me on the tube, in the shower, in the middle of the night: “one day you won’t be here… one day so and so will die… this time 2 years ago so and so was here…” and it provoked panic. Therapy quickly taught me that really, there is no point in worrying, or panicking, or dwelling, because it won’t change a thing. In many ways this is reassuring, but in others it’s the foundation of the problem. We are completely and utterly ruled by nature. We have next to no control when it comes to death, and that’s what’s so scary.

We do, however, have full control when it comes to life. So, the one true way to stare death in the face? Simply, to live the best life you can.

A full and beautiful life isn’t just happiness and rainbows; it is catastrophe, sadness, anger, heartbreak and all the extremes that make us the emotional humans we are. To live a life without the negative is not living, it is half living. All these fiery, dramatic, powerful emotions make us feel alive. They’re difficult to process and cope with, but they’re integral to the human condition, particularly where love is concerned. Perhaps this is why when we grieve, we experience every catastrophic emotion there is. The person we loved and lost casts us on a journey through what it means to live, and what it means to love. It is painful, but to experience it means you have truly lived, and that is a blessing. You were brave enough to love someone so much that you ran the risk of inflicting this much pain on yourself in return. Being prepared to die for someone is the same as being prepared to grieve for someone; and both are the bravest declarations of love you can make.

But how does knowing this help with anything? Understanding grief does little to help you through it. And in all honesty, grief never really goes. It fades, sure, but it will linger for as long as you love that person. The trick is learning to comfort yourself rather than taunt yourself with ‘what ifs’. Your mind and memory will take you on a journey through time, always dumping you in the present with a big hole in your heart. My advice to you is to fill that hole with stories. Say them out loud, write them down and share them with people who care about you. Keep that person’s voice alive. Make it your duty to protect their memory.

Talking about death is integral to coping with grief. It also encourages us to fear the unknown a little less. This is what I tell myself when thoughts of death catch me off guard – I hope it comforts you too:

“…You know that moment when you start drifting off to sleep? It’s by far the most peaceful, welcoming feeling you ever experience. Your eyes are heavy and your body happily succumbs to the beckoning quiet. You want nothing but darkness and nothing else matters…”

That is how I imagine death to feel. Death is remaining in that blissful, content couple of seconds just before we fall sleep, handing ourselves over because it feels irresistibly natural. Maybe that’s why the dead visit us in our dreams. What if, when you die, you become the essence of a feeling? And what if you can’t quite settle into being the essence of peacefulness until the people who love you feel peaceful?

Last night, I dreamt that I had my purse stolen. My Granddad, my Dad’s dad, was in my dream, trying to help me find it. Oddly enough, I woke up to a text from my Dad (who is currently is Japan) saying that he’d had his wallet stolen. It was weird enough that I had experienced the same anguish and frustration asleep as my Dad had when he was awake, but it was even weirder that my Dad’s dad was there to comfort me. This was just a strange coincidence, but I can’t help but believe that maybe there are all sorts of different energies and forces we don’t understand. Our sensitivity to the people we love is much stronger than we realise. Who’s to say that bond is broken after we die?

Death, like anything traumatic and confusing, needs a narrative, even if the narrative is just a big open space that we write ‘who knows?’ in. Because, like life, maybe death can be whatever you want it to be.

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Lessons from you: transforming your body

I love a strange coincidence. Earlier this week, when I was thinking to myself “I really must start asking people to guest post”, one of my close friends sent me this and asked if I’d like to feature it. I don’t know what moved me more; the story behind Omar’s incredible transformation, or the fact he’s associated such a positive life lesson with my blog. If there’s anything to inspire you to turn something negative completely around, it’s this. Enjoy.

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“Let me take you back a year or so and introduce you to my past self. I was skinny-fat, unhealthy and binge drinking every weekend, constantly planning my next big night out. Eating was just something I did to fill my forever-growling belly. I didn’t care what it was. If I was hungry, I would eat anything, never pausing to consider what effect it might be having on my body. Exercise was, in my opinion, a myth. And as for people who posted on social media about fitness, well, they were absolute losers that needed to get a life.

I became quite ill earlier in the year, and food was suddenly something I had to pay a lot of attention to. Monitoring what foods my body could and couldn’t tolerate daily became a huge part of my life. I went from life and soul of the party, to sitting at home in pain, feeling sorry for myself. I was put on medication, which thankfully made the pain go away. I started feeling better and came off the meds, looking forward to getting on with my life as normal. Only, the side effects of the medication meant that I’d gained a lot of weight.

I had no choice but to re-evaluate my entire lifestyle. If I wanted to remain healthy and live a normal life, I would have to make some serious changes.  My diet was in check, but I just didn’t feel or look good. I set about trying to lose the weight that I’d gained by doing youtube workouts at home and I really enjoyed it. My friend and I would meet up every day after work for some high-intensity interval training and ab work outs. I started to feel really good, although progress was slow at first; I was feeling better in myself.

Then, I made the best decision I’ve ever made; I joined the gym. Armed with knowledge of the weight room through various youtube videos, I tackled those dumbbells everyday on my own. I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing at first, but as my knowledge grew, I set myself a muscle split for the week and it became my life.

My goal was to gain a six-pack. I achieved this after three months of training and completely changed my body. I felt amazing. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t want six pack abs?

And now?

Well, after those initial three months, I decided that I love the sport of sculpting your body so much that I’ve set myself a new goal. I want to compete. I want to be on stage and show off what I love to do and what I’ve achieved. So, now I have a coach, Kyle from Colossus Fitness, who helps me with nutrition, training schedules and general motivation. He’s helped me so much. I think my friends appreciate Kyle as much as I do – they don’t have to listen to me go on about the gym (as much) now that I have an outlet for that. I still have a long way to go, but I am so proud of my progress so far.

Why am I boring you with the story of my life? Quite simply, I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy. And it might sound silly, but if I can inspire anyone reading this that is feeling stressed with life, fed up or just wanting to look and feel good to get in the gym, I’ll feel like I’ve done my good deed.

If I’ve had a shitty day, as soon as I start training I immediately forget it. And if I’ve had a good day and I get in the gym, the day is even better. There’s no greater satisfaction than feeling like you’ve achieved something every single day.

Going back to me a year ago, him reading this would have laughed and told me to jog on (whilst eating an XL doner kebab with chilli sauce/salad boss). I’m the last person anyone would have expected to be living the way I do, if I can do it, seriously, so can you.

I’m not saying you need to dedicate your life and compete in bodybuilding. Just have a think about giving this fitness thing a try. Get in the gym this winter and you won’t have to shy away in the summer. What have you got to lose? Apart from maybe a bit of belly fat.”

Feeling inspired? Follow Omar’s progress on Instagram @omargod1

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Lesson 28: hoarding the past

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If, like me, you’re a hoarder, you’ll understand the excruciating pain I was in when I had to throw away loads of stuff because of the damp in our stupid flat. Amongst the wreckage: Zara heels I’d worn once, trusty worn-out Kurt Geiger sandals and a pair of Jones Bootmaker brogues I wore everyday at uni and not once since. I have moved house four times since I graduated four years ago, and I’ve  taken these old brogues with me every time. The Zara heels I quickly got over, the Kurt Geigers I mourned and thought about constantly for a couple of days, but the brogues I never wore… I actually found throwing these away really hard. I felt sad and guilty, like I was letting go of some tiny piece of a past life. I’m not sure I’m particularly materialistic, just ridiculously sentimental.

It fascinates me how much we assimilate meaning from objects that have no purpose. They were just sitting there, collecting dust (and mould, apparently), and somehow they posed as an unlikely comfort, a reminder of the everyday stuff that often becomes lost. I seem to attach this sort of meaning to pretty much everything. It extends beyond the whole ‘I might need it one day’ philosophy. Half the stuff I keep I know I will never need. So why do I do it?

Fear. It’s as simple as that. Fear of forgetting the past, of forgetting a crucial part of the journey, of forgetting a piece of my history, or of someone else’s. All the time I’m hoarding things, I’m subconsciously living in fear.

Perhaps this is why I often dream that my house is on fire and I have to choose what to save, or why I have an irrational fear of being burgled, or why I take a photograph at every opportunity. The truth is, when you have too many belongings, or put too much pressure on yourself to capture and retain every moment, you lose sight of what is really significant to you. Your physical space is crowded and mixed up, and your brain does exactly the same. Tidy room, tidy mind. It’s so true. Your space eventually becomes too full for anything new, and you end up sacrificing your future trying to save your past.

Although it was horrible throwing my beloved brogues away, it was also quite liberating to have faced my fear. When we’re forced to live without something, or do things a little differently, we often end up wondering what we were so afraid of. Change is necessary for moving forward. Everything has to keep moving, whether we like it or not, so better to embrace it than attempt to dwell in the past via mouldy old shoes.

In the ever-evolving consumer culture we live in, it’s ALWAYS necessary to question how much shit we actually need. One of the easiest ways to stop accumulating too much stuff is (believe it or not) to stop buying so much stuff in the first place. Like any addiction, constantly buying things only leaves you wanting more. It’s a cruel trick. A hunger that’s never satisfied. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the happiness we think we get from material things is incredibly short-lived. We are too fickle for our own good. It stems from a constant stream of consciousness that tells us to focus on the things we don’t have, ignoring the things we’ve already got. Similarly, my fear of losing my possessions depends on the idea of absence. Forever focusing on the absence of material things, aligning our happiness with their presence, is simply not healthy or practical. And the truth of the matter is, while you probably don’t need another pair of shoes, someone out there really, really does. Someone out there, lots of people in fact, don’t own any shoes. So what makes you think you need another pair? Or that you can’t live without one of your 30?

Yesterday, I visited my nan, who’s preparing to move out of her three-bedroom house and into a little flat. She wanted my sister and I to ‘choose some things to keep’, and together we went through a big pile of potential ‘things’ my nan was happy to part with. Glassware, tea sets, ornaments, cutlery, pottery, jewellery, ash trays, photo frames. Everything had a story, and yet she was willing to let them go, if not to us then to charity. She made the brave decision to sacrifice a few pieces from the past to make some space for the future, moving forward and embracing a huge change. I will forever take my inspiration from that. The useless brogues (among other things) I threw away left more than enough space for a few things from my nan I will forever, rightfully hold close.

 

Lesson 25: believing in yourself

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The trick?
Believe in yourself,
But don’t believe everything you think.

As some of you might know, I’m currently receiving CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). It’s not something I’m at all ashamed of, so I don’t mind touching on it from time to time. I find it all quite fascinating. I’m not cleanliness-obsessed and I don’t struggle to go about my day if things aren’t arranged a certain way, but I’ve been diagnosed with OCD based on the way I interpret things.

Everyone has weird thoughts from time to time. Like, really weird. Thoughts that make you think ‘where the bloody hell did THAT come from?’ They might be angry, inappropriate, sad, sexual, scary, hopeful, or just plain mental. Thoughts that have the potential to trigger an emotional response. It wasn’t until I started having CBT that I realised just how much meaning I was applying to these unplanned, intrusive imaginings. The more meaning I applied, the scarier and scarier they turned, and the line between my thoughts and reality started to blur. I felt like I was having premonitions, jumping to the worse-case scenario at the tiniest things. I thought I had just developed some sort of anxiety disorder out of nowhere, when really I had let the controlling OCD voice in my head get too loud. It’s very similar to the one that says ‘don’t walk under a ladder, it’s bad luck’, only more exaggerated: ‘don’t open the front door, someone will murder you with an axe.’ When you actually start believing that voice, it is terrifying, let me tell you.

The worse thing about OCD is that it feels like a comfort, like something is keeping you safe and allowing you to have full control of a situation. When in reality, it’s controlling you. So many mental afflictions provoke the same response – trying to claim complete control over your mind and body, only to find that the illness dictates everything you do, robbing you of any autonomy.

At first I felt quite guilty receiving the therapy. I’m not that bad, I thought. And I’m not, but week after week I’ve been confronted with just how much belief I’ve had in the power of my imagination. Last month at work, I was told I would find out on 22nd July whether I would be promoted. On 15th July in therapy, I was asked to write this on a piece of paper:

‘Something bad will happen this week.’

It sounds ridiculous, but I felt so angry with the therapist for ‘tempting fate’ the week before my potential promotion. I convinced myself it wouldn’t happen, and that some other awful thing would happen that week as well. Interestingly enough, the people I’ve shared this story with, who don’t have OCD, have said they would also have struggled to write this down for fear of it coming true. It’s exaggerated superstition; a personal religion that sometimes gets out of hand. It’s as old as humanity itself.

On 22nd July, I’m incredibly pleased to say I was promoted to Senior Writer at The White Company. I don’t know what made me happier and more relieved; the promotion or the fact the therapist was right – my thoughts really do have no effect on reality. It’s an easy, uplifting lesson to have learned. The real test would have been if the promotion hadn’t happened – to then learn to accept that what I wrote on a piece of paper was completely unrelated, just an unfortunate coincidence.

The way I see it, I’m pretty lucky to have been given the opportunity to learn more about how the brain works and fine-tune my thoughts with the help of an expert. As much as we all like to moan about the NHS, it’s actually kind of amazing that CBT is a free service to people who need it, despite the lengthy waiting list. If you feel like this might be something you’d benefit from, ask your doctor to refer you and don’t be ashamed to speak up.

I feel so much more relaxed simply letting the things beyond my control happen. It’s liberating. More to the point, I hope the fact I’ve been able to carry on as normal – continuing to work hard and be sociable despite feeling constantly anxious – encourages other people to believe in themselves no matter what. Ignore the negative thoughts and power-on through. Good or bad things won’t happen because we will them to with our minds. The mind is a powerful thing, but the only thing it can control is your thoughts. The rest is up to you.

 

 

 

Lesson 16: taking back control

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Three years ago today, my caring, funny, inspirational Granddad passed away. Despite being diagnosed with Leukaemia and given 2 years to live, he stayed with us for 8. He simply refused to go. He didn’t want to miss out. However much pain he was in, whatever it took, he wasn’t ready to leave the party. Bi-weekly blood transfusions were the norm and yet I never saw him without a smile on his face. So grateful to be with his family, my Granddad loved life and was the absolute life and soul, right until his very last day.

One of the reasons I’m writing this is because recently, I haven’t been enjoying life the way I used to, and I know I’m not alone. As we get older, life seems to get more and more complicated. It’s hard to always see past the stresses of work and the endless bills, let alone the things that seem completely beyond our control. But are they? Are the negative things we face completely uncontrollable? Because if my brave granddad can outright refuse to die, I have means to believe we are often more powerful than we know.

For anyone struggling a bit at the moment, take a step back from your life and isolate all the things you are unhappy with. Split them into two categories and write them down; things you can change and things you can’t. Take the ‘can’t change’ category and think about each and every thing very carefully, then simply rip it up. If you honestly feel like there is nothing you can do then maybe it’s time to cast these things from your mind entirely. Letting them go will give you more energy to focus on the things you can change. Next, take your ‘can change’ list and write a positive, realistic goal next to each thing. Whether you want to travel the world, lose weight, beat depression, get the job of your dreams or find the love or your life, these things are all within your grasp if you want them badly enough. The very best things in life come from hard work and dedication – that is what makes them so great.

Some of you will know that I often have very vivid, messed-up dreams, both when I’m awake and asleep. Apparently, these ‘intrusive thoughts’ have developed as a result of an anxiety disorder. For me, this often feels like something I have absolutely zero control over. Unimaginable things come into my head when I’m walking down the street, catching the tube or lying in bed at night. They stay with me for days. They provoke panic attacks. I don’t know where they come from, but I’ve been assured that CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) will teach me how to control them.

In the last week or so, I’ve dreamed of my Granddad three times. The dreams were calm, he was smiling and I woke up feeling safe. Always remember that you are the author of your own life. Take control and never forget how lucky you are to have a voice. Whatever you think you become, it’s as simple as that.

 

Lesson 14: looking forward

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About six weeks ago, I wrote about the damaging effects of mobile phones in relation to properly communicating with the people you care about – the lesson being one about balance. We have become so heavily dependent on mobile phones that they trick us into thinking we’ve spent quality time with people, when in reality they prevent us from acknowledging the people right in front of us. Anyway, ironically, my phone was STOLEN the day after I posted this. One minute it was in my bag, then *poof* it was gone. And, for once in my life, I wasn’t even drunk when it happened.

We’ve probably all experienced that feeling by now – suddenly being cut off from the world, unfairly, without warning. Panic sets in, and then the sheer inconvenience of it becomes a reality. It’s horrible to think that being separated from a piece of technology can make us feel so sub-human.

No matter how many times you do it, losing a phone takes you on a little journey of self-discovery. At first you are beside yourself with grief and within a day or so you feel liberated. I went phoneless for a week and I came out the other side feeling even more convinced that we should all take a tiny break from our phones every now and again. It really, really doesn’t hurt. In the time it has taken for my insurance to kick in, I’ve been borrowing my sister’s boyfriend’s old phone. At first it felt clunky and alien, and now I love it like it was one of my own. We are very adjustable creatures when we have to be.

After countless phone calls and emails, I have finally received a lovely cheque for £479 from my insurance company. A few weeks ago, when my phone first got nicked, I would have given all my belongings for a replacement, let alone this money. Now I find myself wondering whether I ever needed an iPhone 5S in the first place. So, not only have I gained a greater perspective from this incident, I’ve potentially earned myself a couple of quid. It goes back to the same mantra I’ve mentioned before – who knows what’s good or bad?

Apply this little lesson to any hurdles life throws at you and you’ll be surprised what a difference it can make. Time and hindsight change everything, and bad luck gives us the opportunity to learn how to overcome something new. If you feel like the world isn’t on your side right now, give things a chance to unfurl and always look for the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long and twisted it may seem.

I’m not saying that everything happens for a reason, merely, that we can only learn to trust the world around us when we give it time to prove us wrong. We have no choice but to believe in the order of things; there is simply no other option.

Never be afraid to look back at what you’ve learned from something, and always believe that positive things are right around the corner. Positivity spreads positivity – the perfect excuse to remain in a constant, blissful state of hope.