100% Cotton

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A few weeks ago, something spectacular happened; Tom asked me to marry him. I knew it would happen one day, but he caught me totally unawares and it was perfect in every way. The setting. The ring. Everything. And I’m still on cloud nine.

He’s going to hate this post, so Tom I apologise now, but you are, and have been ever since I first met you, my rock, and this ring you have so delicately placed on my finger has only reinforced that.

Like most people, I spent many many years thinking I would never find someone to love me. Feeling like I would never find someone who would make me feel good about myself. Thinking that no one would ever understand my anxiety and depression. Destined to be alone. I surrounded myself with boys who made me feel not-worthy, boys who made me feel, quite frankly, like a piece of shit. And that’s not a great place for a hopeless romantic with little confidence.

There comes a point where you start believing that you’re undateable, unlikable and unloveable and you resign yourself to the fact that that’s just how it’s going to be. I was at my worst in every which way. A mess. Battered and bruised and afraid. I didn’t think I had it in me to feel anything for anyone ever again.

And then I met Tom, and as cheesy as it sounds; the rest was history. My life changed in a split second.

Whilst many people are going to flinch at me suggesting such a thing; Tom has been the single most effective treatment for my anxiety and depression. Having him in my life has infinitely made everything 10000% better. Of course he’s not been able to rid me of all my problems or worries but knowing he’s there makes everything that much easier. Having someone to talk to when you’ve had a bad day, a panic attack or a bad dream instantly reduces the distress. Having someone to return home to at the end of the day is the best feeling in the world when all that you are used to is locking yourself in your room with a Boots packaged sandwich.

Tom gave me a reason to live, a reason to wake up in the morning when I was struggling to find one.

Having this hugely important person in your life inevitably brings with it a whole multitude of worries, because you then have the fear of losing them. And whilst many boys would frustrate at the continuous insecurity, Tom has each and every day helped to instil confidence in me and helped me get to a point where I feel completely secure and contented in our relationship and its future. It’s something that I never thought possible, but he’s done it!

He has this innate way of just making everything seem okay; my darkest days, my worst anxieties, my horrible nightmares…..and I’ll never be able to thank him enough for that.

Never does he get annoyed when I have to cancel plans, never does he shout at me when I can’t get out of bed, never does he tell me to stop being silly when I’m worrying about something completely and utterly ridiculous.

He takes me as I am; at my best and at my worst. He never makes me apologise for who I am or what I am feeling. He strives to make every day better than the last. But most of all he makes me feel good enough.

I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with him and I hope that one day I can be a stronger, happier person as no one deserves it more than him.

Fix you

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If you’ve read some of my other blogs you’ll know that I recently underwent a programme of CBT to try and help me manage my anxiety and depression. The therapist decided that despite 6 years of being told I had depression it might be PTSD that I’m living with. Long story short, she referred me to a bereavement specialist who would see me for more intensive counselling. As we all know, waiting lists for such services are huge so I was told to expect an appointment in 6-8 months.

Whilst it sounds like a long time, I was quite relieved. Weekly sessions are intense especially when you have to go into work afterwards and put a brave face on. It throws up a lot of things you might not have thought about before and for a time it made my symptoms slightly worse; so I was looking forward to a rest from talking about all the convoluted thoughts in my head.

No such luck.

I had a phone call on Friday to say that a space had come available on Monday evenings and it was mine if I wanted it.

This was unprecedented. Never have I been on a waiting list that didn’t exceed the predicted time, let alone turn 6 months into 4 weeks. And never have I been a given a set appointment that meant I didn’t have to take time off work to attend. The stars had finally aligned!

But of course my happiness was short lived as the anxiety of talking about my anxiety kicked in. I didn’t much feel like getting into the deep and dark thoughts that haunt me especially as work is insanely consuming at the moment and fatigue is at an optimum high. Do I really have time between meeting with florists for a fanciful ball and fine tuning guest lists for an event at the House of Lords to be grappling with my overwhelming fear of death on a weekly basis?

Not really. But, and it’s a big but (see previous blog!) this is not just for me, this is for Tom. This is for my family. This is for my friends. And I owe it to them. I owe it to them to figure out why I can’t enjoy every moment with them for fear of thinking something terrible is going to happen. I owe it to them to figure out why I picture them dying and spend a lot of my time worrying about them dying. I owe it to them to learn to live in the present and not be a burden all the time.

So with that thought, I left work today with sweaty palms, a throbbing head and a tight chest. With every bone of me telling me I couldn’t do it, that it wasn’t going to help. Panic engulfed me at the thought of having to once again talk about my parents’ divorce, my gran’s death and my illogical fears.

Yet, as soon as she opened the door and welcomed me with a big smile it all melted away and I purged, cried and purged some more. We might have only spent an hour together, but I feel completely comfortable with her. I feel like I can tell her absolutely everything without feeling embarrassed or silly; I trust her implicitly. Akin to dating someone, I always feel you just know when you know with counsellors. And I know.

She might not be able to fix me or cure me or rid me of all my worries but I’m hopeful that she’s going to help me work through things and learn to enjoy life a bit more.

We can but try.

Does my bum look big in this?

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I did vow when I first started writing this blog that I would try and bring a bit of humour and as yet I haven’t really delivered. So with that in mind I thought I’d write something about one of my biggest anxieties, that is, in the grand scheme of things, pretty ridiculous.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to a post about my sizeable backside (translated as; my big arse) and the daily insecurities it brings.

It all started when I read a text a friend sent to another friend at secondary school which said “is lorry arse there?”. Knowing full well they were referring to me, despite their resignation, my complex began.

We can’t have been much older than 12 or 13 at the time and I’d never really given my appearance much thought. There wasn’t the same pressure that now engulfs teenage girls to look a certain way then. But this comment really seemed to light a spark that still burns today as I’m standing here on the train; self consciously yanking my top down for fear of the person sat behind me judging my ample rump.

A chubby, spotty, bushy eye browed teenager I most certainly was but so were all my friends so it didn’t seem to matter. But as soon as I started thinking that other people might be judging how I looked, I ran into a spot of bother.

I went through a phase of fainting and being sick on a daily basis; on the way to school, in school, you name it. I still don’t really know how it started but in hindsight I do think it had something to do with insecurities about the way I looked. I didn’t really tell anyone at the time, but the more I was sick and didn’t eat the better I felt as I started losing weight. And I vividly remember aforementioned friend telling me when I wore a pair of very tight stonewash Levi’s to a subsequent no-uniform day that my arse looked great. God it felt good.

Whilst the likes of J-Lo and The Kardashians have since made big bums fashionable it’s still most definitely something that blights me. It’s sad to think that a part of my body causes such great anxiety but it does and I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of people. And whilst it sounds a bit frivolous, it can at times be really debilitating and tear jerking.

And boy does it make shopping difficult. Everything is judged on whether it makes my bum look big. Even handbags. And don’t even get me started about jeans. It’s nay on impossible to find a pair that fit well on the arse and waist. It’s a true case of first world problems really. Walking also has its problems. Whether it be walking out of room or walking past a group of people. I sometimes hold my breath as the thought of their scrutiny whilst I’m stationary let alone moving is overwhelming. In fact you’ll be hard pressed to find a picture of me where I’m side on too, the fear of ever being captured with it anywhere other than firmly (pardon the pun) behind me, unthinkable.

I mean of course I know that 99.9% of people haven’t given my arse a passing glance let alone a thought and that it’s not exactly on par with Kim K’s but I can’t help but picture that text in my head and wonder whether everyone thinks of me as ‘Michelle with the fat arse’ and instantly sit down or lean against something.

How to lose friends and alienate people…

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about friends and how my mental health has affected my friendships over the past 5 years. It may be an old adage, but the notion of going through a hard time and therefore finding out who your real friends are is a very true one. As anyone who has struggled with depression and anxiety will tell you – not everyone understands it and not everyone sees it as a real thing and this can have a real impact on your friends. Some will rally around you, have the patience of saints and just be there for you, some will shy away not really knowing how to treat you and some, will quite frankly, just be dicks.

My circle of friends has never been huge and definitely  curtailed in the last few years and whilst at the time it isn’t very pleasant and adds to the feelings of hopelessness, in hindsight it was a positive thing. It means I now only surround myself with people who ‘get it’ and people who aren’t going to make me feel guilty for not being up to going out or for cancelling plans at the last minute. Getting out of bed and showering can be hard enough some days, no-one needs the added pressure of having someone take offence and be bitchy when they can’t make it out for a drink.

When I think about my friends and the people that I thought were my friends, there’s always one instance that sticks in my mind. As with most memories I have it’s not a particularly happy one but it is an important one that proved pivotal.

As previously mentioned I had a stint of self harming when I was first prescribed antidepressants. In my mind it started out relatively innocuously, but soon spiralled into something more serious and my arms were in quite a mess. I tried disguising them and hiding them for a long time but the humid Manchester summer made that quite difficult. At the time I wasn’t really seeing many people, I would make excuses and just spend my time at work or locked in my bedroom. As time went on I plucked up the courage to tell some people; people that at the time, I trusted. Weeks went by and I didn’t really do anything, but a bank holiday came around and a friend suggested I go out with her for a few drinks as a friend of ours was DJing. I’m not sure how it came about but I must have felt a bit more confident as I got dressed up and went out; parts of my arms were on show but it somehow didn’t matter. I remember feeling excited, I had some cocktails and was looking forward to seeing people after weeks of being shut away. We went to my favourite bar and met up with some other friends and my friend who was DJing. I remember going over to speak to her, she already knew about everything that was going on so I felt comfortable, and then, she grabbed my scarred arm and said “god, you’re such an emo aren’t you?”.

Everything seemed to change after that one comment. It made me feel like a freak. And I think that was one of the last times I ever spoke to her. I’d sort of looked up to her before that; beautiful, successful and popular she seemed to have it all. She’d always been really kind and I thought she understood, but the expression on her face when she grabbed my arm is something I will never forget.

I don’t blame her for what she said, I’m sure many people said worse, it was more the disappointment and shame she made me feel. It was the disappointment that someone I thought was my friend didn’t see how much effort it had taken me to even be out of my bedroom that night. In fact I don’t really look back on my last year in Manchester very fondly. It was the hardest time for me and the most lonely of times and the fact that I only have one real friend (lovely Lou) to take from it all speaks volumes. When it came down to it, all those people that I thought were friends weren’t and I blame myself a bit for that as I went through a period of just wanting to be in with all the cool people and threw myself into social circles that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable in. But, I’m a firm believer in life being a learning curve and it made me realise that it’s far better to have a small group of fabulous friends that you can count on than lots of flimsy friends who never really give anything back.

If you have a friend going through a hard time and living with anxiety, depression or any sort of mental illness; be kind to them. Be patient and really think before you speak. You can say something in a fleeting second but the scars can still be there years later.

The whole picture

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Today’s been a day for panic and anxiety – nothing new there I hear you cry! But rather than the physical panic attacks or the anxiety about an event it’s been a sheer blind panic about how people perceive me and how I come across online and in my communications; Facebook exchanges/Instagram/texts/Whatsapp/Twitter etc. I’ve painstakingly gone through my interactions over the last few days and cringed. Whether it be  incessant posting and hashtagging, or comments I’ve made that I deem witty but others, well, don’t; it’s all made me feel a bit pathetic and desperate.

I’ve said this before; social media is great but when you mix it with a dose of anxiety, paranoia and general ‘feeling like shit about yourself’ it can get a bit difficult. No matter how many people say they don’t, we all compare ourselves to others online. We all try and portray the great and good in our lives; the arty and the fashionable, but when we see other people’s pictures/posts etc. we forget that they are in fact a skewed take on someone’s life and not, pardon the pun, the whole picture.

And then there’s the issue of writing something that, in your head, is really witty and cool that actually isn’t and the other person doesn’t get it so you have to over-explain with something equally un-witty and a plethora of emojis. Sometimes this is played out for everyone to see or worse still it’s in one of those wretched conversations where you see a “read” sign but no reply and you find yourself fretting about whether said person now thinks you’re weird/stupid/unhinged.

I also find I do that thing where I post because I’m feeling a bit down or a bit lonely – the thought of a few likes or better still a comment; seeming like the answer to everything. Some sort of validation.  But again usually it results in no interaction which results in more feelings of hopelessness and self deprecation and so on and so forth.

I long to be one of those people that are really breezy online, someone that doesn’t analyse every single word in a text or a message (and generally make ridiculous assumptions) and not feel the need to document every moment in my life with a picture (and copious filtering, amiright?). I long to just be able to go; “hey, I’m feeling a bit rubbish, fancy a chat?” rather than posting a Guardian article about someone else feeling that way and suggesting it’s “a good read” with the hope that someone might pick up on my subliminal messaging.

Precious Time

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently having CBT sessions, and whilst it’s not been plain sailing, I have found many useful tools that are helping every day seem that little bit easier.

I’ve always been a very organised person; I like a plan, I like a list and I like a diary and this is something that’s reinforced, working as a PA. As anyone who has experienced CBT will tell you, it involves a lot of lists, a lot of charts and various diaries – so It’s something that I’ve really been able to get on board with.

The last few sessions have been focused on the notion of making sure I do things for myself; making sure I do things I enjoy and making sure I (try at least!) to relax. Underpinning this has been some work on finding out what’s really important to me, what I value and cherish and ensuring that I make time for it every week.

In recent years this is definitely something I have struggled with. The usual; spending too much time on things that don’t really matter and with people that don’t really matter, and it’s not until you really look back on things that you realise how little you were doing that you actually enjoyed. The notion of only doing things you want to do and only investing time in the people that deserve it is quite a basic one, but so damn hard to put into practice (certainly in my twenties that’s for sure).

Fast forward a few weeks though and I now don’t have a weekend free until October, but every weekend is to be filled with things I want to do, with people I want to see. And it feels great.

Family has always been my number one priority and always will be, and living away from them since leaving for university has been hard. Often it has been difficult/too expensive to see them as much as I would like and I’ve hated it. But with a bit of planning and a Two Together card, I now have plenty of visits planned, as well as a holiday with my younger brother Matt to see our aunt in Portugal in a few weeks time and some qality time with Tom’s family.

My love of going out to bars has certainly dwindled in the last few years, and I’ve found it hard to socialise with friends as I don’t really drink anymore and drunken nights out put the fear of god in me, but with the support and ingenuity of Tom, the past few months have seen me spending a lot more time with my friends, having fun, outside of the usual pub setting. We’ve taken part in the Crystal Maze, played crazy golf, been for walks and just had sofa pizza nights and it’s made me feel so much more confident and so much less hopeless and anxious.

Tom and I have also ensured we’ve been spending more quality time together and making the most of our weekends with going and exploring different areas of London and walks, and it’s when I’m at my happiest. I love a walk through a Royal Park, admiring all the flowers and dogs. Granted some might find it boring but for me it’s what I enjoy and it’s what gives me some calm.

Therapy is definitely a learning curve and I’m sure there’s a lot more to go, but I already feel that I’m able to make some smarter choices and choose what I do with more thought and insight. It’s important to remind ourselves sometimes that we aren’t obliged to do anything that makes us feel horrible or bad about ourselves and we don’t have to spend time with people who drain us and make us feel worse about ourselves.

You never hear anyone having regrets about spending too much time doing what they love and with the people they love, only ever about wasting time on things and people that weren’t worth it. Don’t feel guilty abot making those decisions.

Ain’t no mountain high enough

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A year ago today I undertook the biggest challenge of my life and without sounding melodramatic, it changed my life.

I was lucky enough to be chosen as part of Team Wales to undertake Mind’s inaugural 3000s which comprised of a 24hr trek climbing 15 mountains in the green green grass of home; Snowdonia. In classic Michelle fashion, I was having a low day and decided I wanted to do something positive and make people proud of me, so I signed up, not really thinking I’d get a place and not really realising what it was I was signing up for. The hook was that the Welsh team would be captained by Matt Johnson. Having seen him bare his soul on This Morning earlier in the year talking about his battles with mental health, it sparked a conversation with my mum; up until that point I hadn’t really been completely honest about what I was going through. Seeing this successful, charismatic face talking about such deeply personal things in front of millions gave me the confidence to speak out and I wanted to say thank you; and what better way than helping him raise money for such a wonderful and vital charity like Mind.

I remember getting the email telling me I’d been successful and going into sheer panic. 15 mountains. 24hrs. How on earth was that going to be possible? But of course my stubbornness prevailed (I am a Taurus after all) and I decided it would be fine. I’d practice. How hard could walking be?! And the fact that a lot of people told me I couldn’t possible do it meant that not doing it wasn’t an option. So I spent the following 8 months fundraising, freaking out and not really doing that much walking….and then freaking out some more.

The fundraising was tough; I wanted to make as much money as possible, I wanted to feel like I gave it my all and ultimately made a difference. Every time I set myself a target, I got to it and then wanted more. Quite how I have any friends left on social media after all the incessant begging I don’t know, but thanks to everyone’s generosity and belief I raised £4,000. And as I sit here today, I’m still overwhelmed that people resonated with the cause so much and put their money where their mouths were. As a team we raised £70K and I’m so very proud to have been part of that, knowing what a difference to lives it would have made.

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As the support kept rolling in, I felt it was only fair that I was completely honest about my mental health struggles so I pretty much laid bare everything I was going through, everything I had been through and all that was in-between. As daunting as it was at the time, it was one of the best things I ever did. Yes, some people might have cringed at the sight of me talking about how I used to self-harm, how I take antidepressants, how I fell apart but in my mind, if it helped one person feel a little better about their situation then it was worth it. I even went as far as speaking to the press and going on TV and it didn’t feel like a big deal at all – which is quite ridiculous given that I get a panic attack just getting on the bus sometimes!

When my mum dropped me off at the hostel the night before the trek, I felt like a child before dropped off on their first day of school, I knew it was all down to me from then on in and it was fight or flight time. Thankfully my fear was short lived, I was quickly introduced to Camilla and Karen from Mind and I felt heartened and ready to take on the world. A feeling that was only bolstered when I met Matt for the first time whilst we went live on Welsh TV. Now, I might have done my GCSEs in Welsh, but I hadn’t really spoken it properly in 15 years so in my mind that was the biggest challenge of the whole weekend, but we got through it and watching it back (my mum has it saved on Sky+ obvs) you’d never have known!

We all bonded very quickly and by the end of that night, it felt like I’d known many of them for years. So many shared experiences – it was so refreshing to be in the company of people that just ‘got it’. And that was something that sticks in my mind most about the whole experience – how close we all became and what an invigorating feeling that was, especially as I’ve found it so hard to maintain friendships and make new ones over the past few years, for fear of disappointing people. We were all on the same level, no matter where we came from, what we did for a living – we were all in it together and there for the same reason.

The trek was of course hard. Harder than I could have ever imagined at times, but every second was worth it, even the blisters and dodgy hip. It sounds corny, but it was a journey. I found myself doing things I never thought possible, I found strength, I found my resilience and I learnt such a lot. The conversations I had with people will stay with me forever; the word hero is bounded about far too much, but those people I shared the mountains with were true heroes. They all had their own experiences of mental health, whether it be personally or through a loved one and they all gave everything they had and battled all kinds of things, both physically and emotionally. I felt humbled and honoured to have met them and to now call them friends.

We couldn’t have asked for a better captain than Matt. From the moment he met us all, it was clear to see that he was really invested in the challenge, the cause, and us. He united us as a team and kept everyone’s morale going throughout; always there with a wise word or a little pep talk when things got tough. Whereas some would have come along and expected special treatment or kept themselves to themselves; he was one of us and made us all feel special and deserving.

Life hasn’t been a bed of roses since, but the one thing that’s changed is that I now know my own strength; I know that despite people doubting it, I am strong. We might not feel it some days, but living with a mental health problem takes real strength and courage.

Whenever I’m having a bad day and starting to doubt myself, I picture myself at the top of Snowdon smiling, and I remember anything is possible.

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