BIG VICTORIES – 2016

Each month, I put together a Small Victories post, telling the internet (anyone that will listen) what I would like to achieve over the forthcoming 30 to 31 days. The decision to set these targets for myself was born from a desire to cut myself some slack halfway through last year and endeavour to celebrate the smaller achievements in life that that I am inclined to overlook whilst striving for twenty-something life-perfection, or as the youngsters call it, #goals.

Although I enjoy reaching for these smaller aims each month, we’ve reached that time of year again – a time for reflections and resolutions – so I thought it might be a better idea to share with you some of my bigger, more overarching aims for the year ahead instead.

So, if you would like to hear what I have planned for 2016, read on. And if you don’t? Then don’t. But be sure to take the time to reflect on your own resolutions.

Here goes.

1. Organise Myself

I want to make sure that I actually use my diary beyond the 14th January this year. Always one to scupper plans, clash dinner dates and forget to schedule posts on time, I am going to be so organised it hurts this year. Hopefully, this way, I’ll do – and achieve – a lot more. Last year was a chance to gather my thoughts and this year is a chance to take action.

2. See Things

Starting with Oslo at the end of this month and ending in Paris in December, I plan to see lots more of the world this year. After accepting that I no longer have what it takes for lengthy stints of backpacking, I will be enjoying clean sheets and shorter trips away throughout the year, enabling me to see snap shots of the world instead.

3. Learn Something New

I am going to learn how to code this year. I went to my first class last night and am already thinking about the usual anxieties about the next one: What do I wear? Who do I sit with? WILL ANYBODY LIKE ME?

I need to remember that – much like school – I am there to learn, not to socialise.

4. Never Work A Day In My Life

I want to find a job I love. I don’t want to just enjoy it, I want to really, really love it. I am looking for something that involves being creative and dynamic with perhaps a little bit of tech and travel involved. Where that might be? I’m not sure yet. Hopefully this will be the year I find out.

5. Give 

Finally, and most importantly, I want to choose a charity that I really believe in and actively support them throughout the year. Instead of lazily donating money each month to a selection of appeal posters that catch my eye on the tube, I want to get fundraising and spread the word for a good cause or two. Know of any charities who need a hand getting off the ground? Let me know, I’d love to help out.

So now you think about it. What would you like to achieve over the next 12 months?

If you’re not sure what to commit yourself to just yet, think about what would make you really happy and then write down the steps you will need to take to get there. And these are your resolutions. Simple.

Be sure to let me know what you’ve chosen to focus on this year and, that way, maybe we can spur each other on.

Good luck!

BAGS OF KINDNESS

Whether it stems from a fear of the cold or a belief that no one should be alone at Christmas, winter time makes me feel far more charitable than the rest of the year.

Although I am, of course, aware that there are still people in need in the height of Summer, I seem to give more money to charity as we head towards December, am more likely to stop and talk to a person in need on the street and I am certainly more likely to promote projects such as this one. And being a feminist and an admittedly seasonal charitable person, this drive for ‘Bags of Kindness’ is an opportunity to help sent from heaven. And it’s so easy to do. So whether it’s Christmas at yours this year which means that you’re unable to put your hours in at your local Crisis centre or whether you don’t have the cash to donate to your chosen charity, I have a solution. And it comes in the form of a rucksack filled with kindness. Kindness in the shape of sanitary towels and a toothbrush no less, but kindness all the same.

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Unless you live on Mars, (in which case, why are you reading this?) you will know that there are thousands of vulnerable women sleeping rough on the streets of London and across the UK and that they need your help. These women have wound up on the streets, not out of choice, but because of abusive relationships, familial fall outs or a series of unfortunate events. But their struggle doesn’t stop at finding some spare change for food or somewhere dry to sleep. The streets are a difficult place to be and – often – it’s only a matter of time before vulnerable women end up sex working to survive. And some of them with children to protect. This is not only dangerous, but mentally damaging for the mother- and even the child.

So what can you do to help?

Although it is impossible for us to drag each and every single one of these women away from their dangerous circumstances, the amazing women at The Kindness Project have come up with a way of helping those women in need in ways that we take for granted. The idea is that we each buy a rucksack (or even rucksacks) for these vulnerable women and then fill them with everything – from moisturiser and knickers to sleeping bags and socks – to make their life that little bit easier over the coming winter months. There is a Facebook group that you can join that tells you exactly what to put into the bags and exactly what not to put into the bags and it’s important that you follow these guidelines. Where and when to drop your bags off is also included here, so make sure you click.

Whichever way I seem to look at the moment – on the news, in the papers and online – there seems to be violence, torment or just something negative for people to shout about, so let’s give kindness a voice this Christmas and get this female-focused project off the ground. I have never seen girl power like it. Except for the Spice Girls. And they would definitely donate a rucksack or two.

See you at the drop off point!

BRIGHTON MARATHON 2015

My friend Imani is insane. She is insane because she ran 26 miles today. My friend Imani is also amazing. She is amazing because she ran 26 miles today.

Luckily for me, Brighton is a simple train ride away. Or so I thought. Meeting Jess, who almost didn’t make it due to unforeseen hungover circumstances and a desperate need for chicken nuggets, made for a somewhat flustered start to the day. But once we arrived in Brighton, found a good spot and ran alongside our bestie, we soon forgot about the drama of the morning.

Spending the day in this seaside town is always a pleasure. And although she didn’t get any chips and had to side step her way home after the race, I think even Imani would agree that it was the perfect way to spend a sunny Sunday.

Here’s what we got up to…

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A gazillion energy drinks and some almost-tears later, Imani completed the race in just over 5 hrs. Proud doesn’t even cut it.

Apparently it’s mind over matter, running the marathon, but I’m not so sure I could do it.

Could you?

A FOR ANXIETY – A GUEST POST

largeLast October, I fell in love. With a woman. The relationship lasted six hours long and was entirely sexless. However, the lasting effect it had on me was far from forsaken or frustrated. It did what all good relationships do- it taught me about who I am. More specifically, it created a safe and supportive environment for me to learn more about my mental health.

In my mid-teens I experienced bouts of clinical depression that have left me with the delightful legacy of an anxiety disorder. This disorder has been the bane of my admittedly sheltered life.

The woman I fell in love with was my NHS appointed psychologist and I hold her solely responsible for my calmer, braver and ultimately happier 2.0 self. My therapist tryst turned my angst-ridden stress story into a real life rom-com, if you will.

A lot is made in the press of the need to remove the stigma from mental health problems and the 1 in 4 of us in Britain who are affected by one over the course of the year. Undoubtedly, as with countless other issues, understanding how crucial it is for society to ditch discrimination is key to progression. But I have an alternate message.

What many people don’t realise is that mental health disorders can have a detrimental effect on surprising aspects of a sufferer’s life, such as their capacity to complete routine tasks or even sit still for 15 minutes. Personally, I knew it was time to check myself in for a mental once-over when I became so riddled with paranoia, self-doubt and a futile habit of taking every circumstance to worst-case scenario in my head, that I could not sleep. I couldn’t actually do anything. I couldn’t work (leading to relentless aspersions about my laziness), I couldn’t relax (even when plied with my favourite gin), and I couldn’t keep on top of my bills (the council get seriously ratty when you don’t pay tax on time). I also could not stem the bizarre Virginia Woolf style stream of overwrought consciousness my friends were becoming so frequently privy to. I was frenzied and unfocused. It had to stop.

All it took was talking to someone. A professional who could give me some perspective and clear a path toward self-acceptance. An entire specialised gardening and landscaping unit, armed to the teeth with pruning shears and when occasion called for it, chainsaws, was dispatched for that task. No mean feat.

My own issues aside, over the past couple of years I have seen several friends suppress symptoms and signs of an underlying mental health issue. These range from short attention span and lethargy to finding escapism in drink or drugs. As with physical symptoms, left untreated, these only lead to something worse. On the other side, in more extreme circumstances, I’ve witnessed the consequences of not taking prescribed medications for a diagnosed case of bipolar disorder in a bid to be ‘normal’- not for the faint hearted. This is where acceptance must come in. Acceptance coupled with awareness.

So what I’m saying is, absolutely try to be less afraid and uneasy of mental health disorders, definitely wade in to rid society of the archaic notion of freakiness it attaches to mental health problems, which subvert the origins of said problems. Because in this way, we are free to be aware of and undaunted by the state of our own – and our loved ones – mental health.

I’m not trying to scaremonger here. I’m not telling you you’re all as mad as a box of frogs but if you notice that someone close to you is not themselves and might be suffering, or if you recognise something in yourself, do something. We owe it to ourselves to check up on our minds as well as those pesky STIs, even if just to get the all clear.

In the meantime, my top tips for sanity balm would be as follows:

1 – Leave that obsession with the social media platform that so torments you to just once a week. No, checking 73 times a day if he has updated his Facebook to ‘in a relationship’ with the girl in all of his photos won’t stop it from happening. Get on with your own stuff. Oh, and if you’re wondering, all those city slickers who are posting photos at pricey watering holes with unlimited champagne and statuses about bonuses? They won’t be able to afford a mortgage before you because they’re spending all that cash on extortionate booze and questionable ties.

2 – Meditate. Sitting in an upright position and clearing your mind, counting 1 as you breathe in and 2 as you breathe out for a whole minute does not make you a tired, old hippy. It keeps you grounded; away from the sheer drop over the ledge into Frantic Panic Valley, a terrible place rife with insomnia and unappealing sweating. Nobody needs that.

3 – Take charge. Remember that everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end. Don’t be afraid of yourself.

And check out Mind.org’s mental health selfies to learn more from real people.

Written by the gorgeous (and ever surprising) Joanna Mackay

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My most recent guest blogger and newest recruit in the quest to understand – and help out – humankind. Find her on Twitter here.

The Mind

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It’s very easy to assume that everybody is okay.

That person you stalk on Instagram might have been to four festivals this year, have the glossiest of hair and a butt to rival Nikki Minaj, but actually? All might not be well in their world.

It’s very easy to spot a cancer patient or somebody suffering with MS but when someone is sick in the head, nobody need know aside from them. And although we are a far cry from lobotomies and involuntary ECT, this means that issues are bottled up and left undealt with because it might seem easier to ignore than to seek help.

I happen to know quite a few people who have suffered and are still suffering from various mental illnesses. Depression and anxiety mainly, unsurprising in this day and age, and for me, understanding mental illness really was a case of not believing it until I saw it. Panic attacks look terrifying from the outside, feeling anxious for no reason looks burdensome and not wanting to eat and not being able to sleep can literally ruin one’s life. I’ve watched it happen and I understand how easy it is to say ‘chin up’ or ‘get over it’ when you see people having a down day. But for some, it’s not quite so simple as pulling themselves together, and getting up on a Monday morning might just be that little bit more difficult for them.

It takes a hell of a lot of courage to ask for help and it also, shamefully, costs quite a bit. Of course, there are options on the NHS but you practically have to be about to jump off Beachy Head to get help and private counselling isn’t always an option.

So what can you do?

When someone is bound to a wheelchair or has a visual impairment, it’s quite obvious how you can help them out on a daily basis, whereas when you can’t actually see the problem, you can feel a bit helpless. So think of yourself as free health care. And not just today on World Mental Health Day, but everyday, make sure you ask that person who has gone a bit quiet if they’re okay and cut people some slack if they’re not feeling their best.

And if you don’t feel like yourself at the moment, talk.

A good place to start would be to check out Mind or if you would just like more of an insight into the taboo topic of mental health, visit TED. Some of the talks on there really are quite insightful.

Most importantly, be patient with people; you’ve no idea what’s going on upstairs, or beneath that perfect exterior.

Enjoy your weekend.

The Balls

So last month I didn’t stop banging on about boobs. This month, I’ll be nattering about balls.

Girls, be prepared to encounter some rather grizzly smackers for the next few weeks as Movember kicks into action. While October was exhumed in a female-friendly pink colour which I hope will continue beyond Halloween, this month men across the country get a little hairy (above the neck) in aid of Testicular Cancer Awareness. Just like most things man-related, it’s one of those topics that is avoided by most and worried about by many. Men will readily admit to finding it far more difficult to talk about their feelings than women. Ladies can run up and hug each other when times are tough, but for men, a comical caterpillar that sits above their lip for four weeks, speaks volumes.

Although they are arguably one of the funniest looking body parts, those two balls that hang off your man (or yourself) ultimately create life. And with 2,000 men diagnosed with testicular cancer in the UK each year, I think we should all start thinking about them a little more. So whether they are hairy, huge or rather non-descript, check them out regularly rather than just scratch them in public. It’s important.

But listen, I’d love to say and chat but I really moustache.

Have a great Movember and get involved. It really is a wonderful cause.

The Homeless

This year’s Christmas period has seen three wonderful men set up home outside Fulham Broadway Station. They have boxes, sleeping bags and more food than Dawn French probably consumes in a year. People have been generous with their donations this year I presume. They gorge on mince pies, sandwiches and Starbucks coffees! Its scenes like this that make me feel as if the kindness of Londoners is underrated at times. I mean, we’ve got organisations such as CRISIS at Christmas where hundreds of ‘cold hearted’ city dwellers volunteer to help the homeless, that’s a show of true dedication to helping improve the lives of others I feel!! I think next year, people need to reflect upon these small acts of kindness which happen daily in the capital and be happy, a la Love Actually!

Despite everything positive from this image, I fell into the patronising age old comparison between ‘us’ and ‘them’…  “gosh, it must be so cold for them during the winter months” or “they must be absolutely starving”… no, you don’t say. But anyway, as I continued on this somewhat annual tradition of comparison, I realised that students (i.e. me and the majority of you) are not that different to these people living in cardboard boxes. I am always hungry because I can’t afford to buy lots of food and pretty much eat eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner and my house might as well be made from cardboard because it is so chilly! Don’t get me wrong however, I’m not proposing that we shouldn’t sympathise with the homeless, in fact we should be more inclined to do so, but we have to think about our own situation as students too. The rise in tuition fees is potentially creating a generation of ‘educated homeless’ people. Most can barely afford university as it is, so why make it more difficult for us? It’s like taking a cardboard box away from a person living on the streets, but the government somehow sees it as progressionary. Interesting. Just because you don’t see students huddled up in doorways, doesn’t mean we don’t have a struggle on our hands.

I do sometimes wonder what Robin Hood is doing right now? Wish he’d make a trip to parliament and teach them a few lessons…