Four years ago, aged 39 years, 11 months and 3 weeks, I was told by my GP that I wouldn’t live to see 50 if I carried on the way I was. Hearing that a week before your 40th birthday is not really the way you want to start out the celebrations. It was however a very important moment in my life, and the moment where my own self care became vital to my well-being and longevity. It has continued to fuel a passion within me to share my story and to facilitate and support other people’s journey to self care. In my previous blogs, ‘Are you Thriving or Surviving’ and ‘That’s Not My Monkey’, I touched a bit on my history and self care journey and provided tips to help you toward yours. In this blog, I want to talk to you about the life I was living and why it 100% absolutely HAD to change if I had any chance of thriving.
It took me a long time to realise that whilst I might not always have control over what happens to me or events in my life, I can control my response to my experiences. I can choose to sink or swim.
Like many of you reading this, I came to adulthood with a lot of emotional baggage. I was adopted at age 12, having being removed from my birth family aged 5 due to significant abuse and neglect. I spent time in a children’s home, then foster care and then I was adopted by the people who fostered me. There was a delay in being adopted by them due to my adoptive mother having cancer a few times, meaning prolonged stays in hospital for her and various people looking after us. I experienced further traumatic experiences throughout my primary and teen years, and I then left home at 18 to go to Uni, during which time I had a very negative experience of coming out as gay to my Christian parents and wider church family. Whilst many aspects of my adoption were very positive, and I’ve succeeded and done well in many areas of my life, these early and traumatic experiences have left deep scars, some of which I’m still working on healing today, aged almost 44.
Due to neglect and other experiences, I’ve always had a, let’s say, rather unhealthy relationship with food. Up until the age of 5, I could never be sure when food, care, comfort or love would be available to me. Our attachment patterns are formed in life within the first year and definitely by the 3rd year. What we learn about the world stays with us as our ‘scripts’ for a long time, often a lifetime. Our attachment patterns are the cornerstone of who we are as humans; they are formed by our experiences and very much impact on and affect how we perceive the world and how we feel the world perceives us. It affects not only the relationship we have with other people, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the relationship we have with ourselves.
As life went on, I grew to doubt and despise myself, and combined with the constant attachment based need to eat because not eating was scary and triggered fear of further neglect, I also comfort ate to make myself feel better. This got particularly bad when I went to uni and I also stopped the sport I had been doing up until that point. I then left uni, aged 21, weighing 17 stone and over the next 18 years, weight just kept piling on until in 2015, I weighed 23 stone. I found dieting hard as depriving myself of food triggered the memories of neglect, and I become very anxious when food has to be withheld. So I didn’t really bother dieting and when I did, it was never maintained. It was too hard and my fixed mindset was that I couldn’t do it. I was also aware that my birth mother was very large, and that a number of my birth family members from both sides also struggled with their weight. So, in my fixed mindset, it was in my genes and there was nothing I could do.
In 2004, I qualified as a Children and Families Social Worker. Social Work is listed as the 3rd most stressful job in the UK. And, if anyone has ever been in to a social services office, or on a team night out, you’ll know that cake and alcohol feature heavily in a lot of social workers’ diets, and I was no different. The food became a problem, although I’m not that keen on alcohol. I wouldn’t stop for a proper lunch so would eat office cake or rushed beige food from a packet, and I would work late and not have time to cook so would bung a pie in the oven or pick up a takeaway. And the weight piled on and I became stressed and overwhelmed and at risk of burnout.
And then, in 2007, the first of 3 grandparents to die in the space of 3 years passed away, then the second in 2008 and the 3rd in 2010. This was tough and although I went to grief counselling, which helped massively with the emotion of it all, my capacity for self care decreased rather than increased. I ate continuously, exercised rarely and worked very long hours. Then between 2008 and 2013, I was in what I now know to be an incredibly toxic friendship with a narcissist. Things were good for a while and then became VERY bad. I made mistakes and tried to hang on too tightly, but I now also know, after finding myself again, that this friend was incredibly controlling and our friendship damaged my self esteem and efficacy for self care even further. It was only when I was pushed out of the friendship (just before I was going to leave it anyway) that I realised just how low I had become. So low that I ended up on anti-depressants for 6 months and my journey to self care began in terms of my emotional, but not yet my physical health. And then, in 2013, a month before we had children, my birth Nana who’d I’d got to know, died; it was my fourth loss in 6 years. And still I continued to eat and work long hours.
Then children arrived, both with additional trauma based needs, and, as it turned out, one who is deaf and has been since birth. And then 3 months after that my mother in law was diagnosed with Leukaemia so whilst also trying to juggle newfound parenthood, we spent the next 13 months managing her illness, until she died in November 2014. She’d met our children twice in that time and never got to be the Nanny she wanted to be. At the same time, my parents started on their own journey of moving to live abroad and so our immediate family shrank significantly in a very short space of time. And still, I ate and didn’t exercise.
And then 2015 started, and I think the stress and loss of life up until then kicked in and, because I was so big and unfit, my body couldn’t cope with all of this and began to shut down. Before the year was out, I had pneumonia twice (one bout resulting in a resting heart rate of 140 and paramedics being called), had tonsillitis 7 times, and I contracted psoriasis, an autoimmune condition, as well as related arthritis. This is was years and years of abuse, stress, anxiety, toxicity, long working hours at a stressful job, unhealthy eating and a sedentary lifestyle finally taking it’s toll.
And then I was told I would die within 10 years.
There’s nothing like being told that to wake you up, kick you up the arse and make some significant changes! As a result, I now totally indulge in my self care and I take it very seriously. During 2016 and 2017, I lost 9 stone in weight (most of which I’ve kept off) and I became fit, making time to run, cycle and swim. My physical and mental health are the best they’ve ever been and my life looks completely different in terms of how I perceive the world, and hopefully how it perceives me. I ring fence my me time, and I have very strict boundaries in relation to my working life, which I religiously adhere to. I’m good at my jobs but they no longer consume my life. I take time to connect with myself, my partner, my children and my friends. I no longer tolerate toxicity in my relationships with family or friends and I have learned to walk away for the benefit of my mental and emotional health and my capacity to thrive.
I can’t say any of these changes have come easily, some have cost me a lot financially, emotionally and time wise. But, what I am completely clear about is that none of these changes have cost me my life, which continuing the way I was would have done. Making changes to focus on self care in order to thrive is hard. But I know from experience that it’s sometimes the only thing to do if you are to thrive rather than survive. It takes planning, commitment and hard work. You have to be invested in you and your goals, and engage in a process of change 100%. But it’s all totally worth it, each and every tiny step of it. But, it won’t just happen. It is a journey. And you might need help from friends, family and even someone like a therapist or life coach, to take those steps and make those changes. You could also join our Facebook group that is for people wanting to find their new normal and move forward in their emotional and physical lives.
In My Journey to Self Care, Part 2, I will talk about how I made the changes and what steps and processes were involved. For now though, I hope I have communicated why I am so passionate about helping others interrupt and change their own scripts and life patterns to achieve balance, self care and to thrive. I do this through my work as a Therapeutic Social Worker, a Life Coach and Run Leader. And I love it. And I’m good at it. But I am very very careful to be boundaried and to live a life where I am thriving not merely surviving.
What areas need addressing in your life? Do you thrive? Do you prioritise your own well-being and self care? If not, what is it going to take to take those steps and make those changes? Hopefully not a GP giving you a shortened life expectancy.