Self-care printables for help with anxiety, depression, PTSD and dissociative episodes

For various reasons, including high pain levels and horrendous sleep-maintenance insomnia (when you can get to sleep but can’t stay asleep, and your sleep is highly fragmented), I have days when I struggle with anxiety attacks and dissociative episodes.

Because I want this blog post to be a non-triggery safe space for people who may have found it because they’re having headweasels right now, I’m not going to go into detail about symptoms. Instead, I’d like to share a coping strategy that helps me. This is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice and it may not work for everyone. All I know is it works for me and therefore might be helpful to others.

I use my journal to do this because I find writing with my favourite fountain pen in a lovely notebook really calming, but if notebooks aren’t your thing or you’re not in a place to start laying out worksheets for yourself, I’ve included downloadable printable versions at the bottom of this post. They’re jpegs so you should be able to open and print them on pretty much any device. They’re A4 size at 300dpi so you can scale them up or down to suit. Anyone is welcome to download and use them. I’m fine with them being shared too, but please share this post directly rather than downloading and reuploading the files. Thanks 🙂


Self-care and comfort

Things to do today
This isn’t intended to be a giant list of super important tasks for work or hardcore housekeeping. It’s supposed to be a list of things that help you to stay safe and comfortable, and perhaps a few things that you really need to get done. For example, my list for today includes cuddling my cat, a short yoga practice, laundry, and a quick check on my emails and social media notifications. Depending on how you’re feeling, you might want to include some basic personal hygiene tasks, or a reminder to call or chat online with someone you love.

Eat something
When my mind is imploding, I suck at remembering to eat. It’s generally a good idea to eat something a few times a day, so this section on the printable has five stars (they could’ve been boxes, but no, stars are better) so you can colour one in or tick one off every time you have a munch. Feel free to add more stars if you like – whatever works for you.

Drink something
I’m referring to water or tea here, although if the only way you’re going to consume liquid is if it’s in a sugary or fizzy format, at least you’re hydrating so don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s a good idea to drink at least two litres of non-alcoholic, preferably non-caffeinated, liquid a day. I’ve included five stars here too, but you can scribble one out or add more to suit the size of your favourite mug, glass or water bottle. If thinking about amounts of things is too much at the moment, just use this as a reminder to drink something.

Move around
I’m not talking about doing five gym sessions or five long walks in one day. This is simply meant to be a reminder to get up out of your chair if you’re able to, or stop what you’re doing and have a stretch if you aren’t mobile. If you’re able to incorporate some exercise-exercise, great. If not, don’t worry. This is about getting you through the day, not pushing yourself to the point of collapse.

Listen to…
When you’re having a difficult day, it can help to have a list of some of your favourite songs, artists, playlists, radio stations or albums to listen to. You don’t have to work through the list – it’s supposed to be there so you only have to think about this stuff once and then have a resource to refer back to for the rest of the day.

Sometimes a favourite film or TV show can provide comfort, distraction or much-needed smiles. This is a space for you to make a short list of films or shows you love so that if you hit a point in the day when you need something to watch, you can just pick something from the list without having to start making big decisions.

This is a take-it-or-leave-it bit, but it really works for me. Make a quick note of something that helps you to feel better. It could be a mantra like I am fine the way I am, or a reminder like I am loved, or something that you’re looking forward to like The weekend starts tomorrow.


Check in

Honestly, I laughed at this concept the first time I heard about it but when the shit really hits the fan, I’ve found it super helpful to ground me in my surroundings and my body. A check in is basically time you take to go through what’s happening in your physical surroundings, what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. It can take two minutes or half an hour – it’s up to you.

What time is it?
Don’t guess. Look at a clock, your phone, your fitness tracker, your watch, whatever. This gives you context for this moment in your day.

Where am I?
Try and give a bit more information than simply at home. For example, my last check-in “where” was in my favourite chair in my living room. This creates some solid detail.

What am I watching or listening to?
This gives you another bit of solid detail to ground you in your surroundings and gets you using your senses of sight and/or hearing.

What am I doing?
Resist the urge to write a check in! This is a prompt to do something to ground you in your body – eating, drinking, brushing your hair, stretching, massaging your feet etc – and gets you using your sense of touch.

What feels comforting?
A check in is a reminder to appreciate comfort, and create some if you can’t immediately recognise any in your surroundings. My last check in “comfort” was my orange scanted candle. Yours could be your snuggliest sweater, the light from your favourite lamp, the feeling of the lawn under your bare feet, anything in your immediate environment that makes you feel good, even in the smallest of ways.

How am I feeling?
This can be a one-word answer, a short sentence or a stream-of-consciousness ramble – whatever you need it to be. It doesn’t have to show progress and it doesn’t have to be filled with positivity if that isn’t where you’re at right now. It’s simply a prompt to notice what your emotions are doing and accept them.

Draw something
Seriously. It doesn’t matter what you draw or how detailed it is. It’s just a little task to do, something that gets your brain and hands working together. You can use it as a tool for expression or catharsis if you want, or you can doodle random shapes. It doesn’t matter. High-five for any Hannibal fans out there who are drawing a clock right now.


Grab your printables

If you’d like to grab the printables, click on the images below to open and download them full-size.



A final note

I created these tools based on my own experiences and needs, and you are absolutely welcome to edit them to suit yourself. For example, depending on your senses you might skip the bits about watching or listening to things, or add more touch-based resources. If writing isn’t accessible to you or isn’t something you enjoy, you might prefer to speak your answers out loud or just think about them without any external expression. If you think it would be helpful to keep your worksheets to look for patterns, you can totally do that, but it’s not what I created them for. If you want to throw them away at the end of the day, that’s cool too. You do you. You’ve got this ❤

I Miss The Girl I Almost Was


i miss the girl i almost was

she sits lightly on the edge of the bed
at 4am and brushes my hair back from my
face with a touch like spiders’ footsteps

her breath is like ice and
her wishes are weightless

she wraps a strand of promises around
her fingers and kisses me goodbye again
with lips like polished crystal

she waits for me at crossroads

she is always cold

– – – – –

I know I usually post poetry without much explanation or context, but I want to talk about this one a bit.

First of all, anyone who knows me well or reads this blog regularly will notice the weirdness of the use of the word ‘girl’ in relation to myself. It’s not a label I feel fits me at this point in my life, partly because of my age (are thirty-six year old ‘girls’ really a thing?) and partly because I rarely gender myself in this way at all and feel very much ‘they‘ rather than ‘she’. That said, for most of my life it was like “Well, everyone else looks at me and thinks ‘woman’ so I guess that’s what I am”, regardless of how I actually felt about myself. So yeah, it feels a bit strange for gender-ambivalent me to say ‘girl’ but I wrote this poem quite a few years ago and I don’t want to change it now, cause for whatever reason it felt right at the time.

The fact that it’s not recent is also important. For a long time, I didn’t feel like I was really over the eating disorder that had been a big part of my existence from childhood until my early twenties. It haunted me like the ghost of something I could have been, which is what this poem is about. I’m happy to say that I’ve recently started to recognise that I am genuinely, fully recovered. I look in the mirror and see what is actually there, not some terrifying shape-shifting nightmare of myself. I enjoy cooking and eating food and it is not attached to any feelings of guilt or shame. I used to wonder if I would ever reach this point, so it’s a big deal to realise that I have.

I guess this poem is a tribute to someone I might have been but also to someone I was for a very long time. The people we’ve been are the building blocks of the people we are and I wouldn’t be who I am today if I hadn’t also been that person.

When I Say I Can’t


When I say I can’t do something, sometimes it means just that—I am literally not physically capable of doing that thing, no matter how much I want to or how hard I try. Sometimes it means that while I could possibly force myself through the ordeal, with the help of stimulants and painkillers but still exhausted and in extreme pain, after days of bed rest to prepare for the exertion, the effect that will have on me afterwards is not worth it.

This is the effect it will have on me afterwards. I will be profoundly exhausted to the point where sitting up, walking and being in an environment other than a dark, quiet room are extremely difficult, and preparing food for myself, washing my hair and body, and getting dressed are most likely impossible. The sensation of hearing any noise above a quiet whisper or looking at light brighter than what creeps in through the crack in the curtains is physically painful. This makes any form of communication, in person or at a distance—even talking on the phone or using a computer—uncomfortable at best and impossible at worst.

I will be in so much pain that I cannot sleep for more than a couple of hours a night. That, combined with the extreme exhaustion, means that I’m running on adrenaline and very little else. This perpetual state of fight-or-flight, the feeling you get when you’re leaning back in a chair and it tips into instability, triggers constant, intense anxiety. Because the anxiety is not about anything, it cannot be talked through or effectively managed with tools that are used to reduce anxiety caused by emotional factors. It is just there. The longer it’s there, the more frequent the panic attacks and dissociative episodes become until pretty much every waking moment is one or the other, or both.

What I desperately need to do in this situation is sleep. A lot. Deep, restful, restorative sleep. This does not happen for all the reasons explained above. The longer it does not happen for, the worse everything gets until I reach a point where I can’t sleep, can’t eat, have no idea what’s going on and am absolutely terrified, all while being so exhausted I have to concentrate on breathing and in so much pain that there is no respite from it no matter what I do.

Life does not stop because of this. Things do not stop needing to be done. The world does not become quiet, dark and undemanding for me. Even when I am able to say no to everything and take the time I need to begin to recover from whatever put me in this state to start with, it does not improve in a matter of days. It takes weeks. Sometimes it takes longer. During that time, I question myself. I feel lazy, guilty, worthless, useless. I most likely have to say no to things while struggling to explain why, managing only “I can’t” or “I’d be a mess afterwards” and people generally don’t get what that means.

I have spent more than a decade with no choice but to knowingly do this to myself because I had to work in jobs that required it. Financially, I had no other option. None of this is because I haven’t tried hard enough to get better or have lacked a suitably positive attitude or don’t know how to look after myself. Trying hard and getting through things on attitude alone are all that has kept me going. I know exactly how to look after myself—the problem has been that my life has not allowed for it, even at the best of times.

Now I am lucky enough, and have sacrificed enough, to be in a position where I can say, “No, I can’t”. When I do this, it is not laziness or negativity or a lack of determination. It is a conscious choice not to live in hell. It is not avoidance or giving in to a fear of what might happen. It is self-preservation due to being acutely aware of exactly what will happen, based on what has happened, what does happen.

So when I say, “Things haven’t been great for the last little while”, this is what I’m referring to. When things haven’t “been great”, I will still occasionally have a good day when I can do a little more than I’ve been able to do on the other days, but these good days are not predictable and if I push myself too hard on not-a-good-day, I hit rock bottom again. This makes it incredibly difficult to plan things because while I might wake up one day and be able to do a little more, I cannot know in advance when those days are going to be.

For more than ten years, every decision I made was based on one question—”Can I do this?”. Not “Can I do this safely and without drastic negative consequences?”, but “Can I force myself through this somehow, no matter what happens?”. How I felt wasn’t even a factor. This became my natural state of being to the point where I forgot how to consider how I felt. Whether or not I wanted to do something didn’t even come into play. I forgot not just how to consider that, but what it meant.

I am gradually learning to think about how I feel and what I want again, to remember what those words and thought processes mean, and that they are allowed to factor in to decision making. I am slowly getting to grips with saying no, with remembering that I am not lazy or worthless if I can’t do something. I am getting better at shutting down conversations where people try to tell me, often in subtle ways, that this is somehow my fault, my doing or my choice.

I wish I was better at explaining all this, that I could do it concisely with one short sentence instead of fifteen hundred words. Or maybe I wish I was better at remembering that I don’t have to explain it, but I’m not there yet. I still live in a world that requires justifications, that says, “It could be worse”, as if only the one person on the planet who has it worse than anyone else is ever allowed to be anything other than fine. I still live in a world where the government, the mainstream media and everyone who listens to those things believes me, and people like me, to be nothing more than a waste of space and a drain on resources. It is hard not to feel anger about that, but anger requires a lot of energy and I have better things to do.

Most of the time, I am invisible because I exist behind closed doors. People do not see me unless I’m physically able to be in human company. On those days, I do not look sick. I am an expert at the casual rest stop, the undetected lean-against, the cover-up of under-eye circles and too-pale skin and the effects of my own immune system turning against my body, and the disguise of shaking hands and blurred vision. My autopilot, the detached, robotic thing that smiles through my face and says “I’m fine, honestly”, is finely tuned. For someone who prioritises honesty in almost every aspect of existence, I am an excellent liar when it comes to answering, “How are you?”. I can even manipulate myself into believing the things I tell other people. I know I do it and I do it anyway. But I shouldn’t. And I shouldn’t have to.

I’m not even sure why I’m writing this other than I need to get it out of my head. Maybe someone else who lives in a similar situation will see this and feel less alone. Maybe someone who doesn’t believe that a person can seem alright on the surface and be invisibly falling apart will see this and realise that their assumptions are flawed. Maybe I’ll read it tomorrow and hate myself for putting something so raw out into the world where people can judge me harshly and continue to believe that I’m weak, lazy and unmotivated, even though that couldn’t be further from the truth.

I don’t know. I just know that it needs to be said, so I’m saying it. I’ve said it. It is not for validation or sympathy or sad-face emoji responses. It is at least partly because this can no longer be the one thing I am willing to lie about. I am left wondering why the truth of this is such an uncomfortable, ill-fitting garment but also knowing that I will continue to wear it.

Anniversary Happiness and Julehygge


Yesterday, D and I celebrated fourteen years of marriage and fifteen years of being-together-ness. We don’t usually get to do much for our anniversary cause this tends to be a really busy month for both of us but this year the planets, stars and schedules aligned, so we were able to spend the day together doing lovely things. We had a whole afternoon wandering around the National Museum of Scotland (the photo above was taken from the seventh floor roof garden), went to a gorgeous little Lebanese restaurant (with the best hummus ever) for dinner, then headed home to play with our newly acquired Nintendo Wii.

I’m honestly so excited about the Wii. We’ve been a zero console household for years because D tends to play PC games and although I love a bit of Tekken, I’m not into gaming enough to justify the cost of consoles and games. A few years ago, friends of ours got a Wii and after some tipsy Mario Kart sessions we were both hooked. We thought “Yeah, we should get one of those some day” but never got around to it. After realising how cheaply they can be bought second hand, we decided to get ourselves one. It’s black. Because of course it is. Grown-up goths forever.


This post is basically All The Happy. I absolutely adore this time of year and I’m so grateful to be spending this Yule in our lovely new home. Ever since I heard the word hygge (kind of a physical and emotional cosiness, but here’s the Wikipedia article for a better explanation), it has played a part in pretty much every choice I’ve made about decor, lighting and furniture. I was looking up how to use hygge correctly in a description (I think it’s hyggelig or hyggeligt but I’m not sure which) and found a perfect word that I didn’t know existed until tonight – julehygge! It’s hygge specifically for this time of year.

I’m sitting in a room lit with candles, a glitter lamp and fairy lights on our baby tree (it lives in a pot and will be spending the rest of the year in the garden, growing up). There’s gold and black tinsel on the yukka and the rubber plant. There’s a cat snoozing on a pile of cushions next to me. I’m wearing pyjamas, wrapped in a fluffy blanket and feeling snuggly (and hyggelig/t). My parents are arriving this time next week for a few days and D has two more days at work until he’s off until the end of the month.

The last decade has been incredibly tough. Living with a chronic illness where I’m in almost constant pain and running on very little power can make things really difficult, especially as it massively affects my ability to do the exercise I need to do to minimise progression of the damage to my back and legs from an old injury. I took care of myself as best I could but I’d been skimming along rock bottom the entire time and as much as I needed to completely change how I lived my life, I couldn’t do it in any meaningful or effective way because it wasn’t financially viable. Right now, it is, just about.  I ended a part-time freelance work contract that had been causing more unhappiness, stress and cognitive dissonance than it (or anything, really) was worth. It was a big, scary step but it is one hundred per cent the right thing to have done. We’re super careful with money because we have to be but I’m finally able to give myself some much-needed space to prioritise my health and manage my time instead of struggling to get through each day.

December is my month off. I made a conscious choice not to plan, not to think about the future and not to make any big decisions. This is a luxury I have literally never had before in my life and I am so unbelievably grateful that I have it right now. Come January, I will focus on what happens next and what I want to do. I intend to give full and honest consideration to what is realistic for me and remember that waking up crying every morning after two hours sleep because everything hurts and my brain is imploding, loading up on frustratingly necessary stimulants and painkillers to get through the day, and accepting dissociative episodes as the refreshing alternative to near-constant anxiety attacks is not feasible. Until then I am allowing myself to nurture a beautiful sense of hygge, spend time with friends and family, go for wintery walks when I’m able to, make our home extra lovely and allow parts of my soul to resurface and grow that had been buried under pain, exhaustion and fear for far too long.

My heart is so full of gratitude and love. In a world filled with so much violence and horror, especially right now, I appreciate every second of goodness and am in no doubt about how immensely lucky I am.

❤ Tanya

Living With A High Functioning Depression Sufferer

Living With A High Functioning Depression Sufferer

This was originally posted on my old blog but I wanted to share it here too. These are not my words. They belong to a friend who asked for them to be shared in the hope that by opening up about the experience of living with and loving someone who has high functioning depression, even anonymously, it might help others to understand that this is not an isolated issue. Her aim in writing this piece is to break down myths and encourage those who are suffering to feel less afraid to ask for help.

It’s been a few years since the last break down. Life with someone who has depression, but is high functioning, can be an emotional rollercoaster. It’s not that every day is a battle to get them out of bed, or that they spoil the good things by being anxious or depressed. It’s not them being down all the time. It’s not any of the things people think it is. It’s not even the stuff people often talk about with mental illness. It’s admitting you’re ill, hitting rough patches and talking it through with close friends. It’s dark and largely unseen. So I want to explain, for my benefit in getting these thoughts down, reading through them and opening up a little, but also for those who have a loved one who is a high functioning chronic depression sufferer.

My partner and I have been living together for the better part of a decade now and those years have been filled with a lot of love and a lot of laughter. He’s a funny person who is social and gets excited about things.  He likes books and binge-watches TV series with me. We play games together and go for walks. He doesn’t take the washing out of the machine or put his socks in the basket. It’s a normal relationship in almost every aspect, but in the background there’s a shadow. Sometimes referred to as the black dog, or the cloud, this shadow isn’t cast on every day. I’m not having to push him through that black shadow and he isn’t taking antidepressants or suffering regular panic attacks, but it’s always there at the back of my mind.

An unexpected bill might make it descend or a pile of work added to his week, months of late nights being social and having fun, or working late. It could simply be a few weeks of being physically unwell, having a cold or something that breaks his routines or adds pressure. There are rarely many signs. He will get short with me, not want to go out or play a computer game, or he will skip a meal or two, but generally he keeps going. For those who don’t know him extremely well, what happens next can be completely unseen.

Depression hits. With high functioning depression, it’s often not a can’t-get-out-of-bed situation. Its not just feeling off or really emotional. It can be drinking and drugs, or a suicidal break down. It’s 24-72 hours of emotional turmoil. It’s a sudden, and often unforeseen, critical break down. It’s a breaking point in the person’s head and they’ll have bottled it up for so long that it breaks hard. Then, as long as they have the support they need, as long as someone catches them as they fall, the light turns back on and they start to fight through the depression and anxiety. They push through the harsh words, the regret and guilt, and they may weep over their actions. But to the outside world, especially if the person living with high functioning depression has a good support system in place, things appear to go back to normal quickly.

What is it to be a high functioning depression sufferer? Well, there’s no standard type. They often tend to be the people holding down good jobs. They may have degrees and can be very intellectual. They might live seemingly perfect lives with stable relationships and a nice home. They are the “normal” ones with a good sense of humour. They often do well in work. They have friends and a family.

But they hide big dark issues, such as a tendency to hide money or work or relationship problems. They rarely disclose to others their feelings in any situation, not even telling lovers how they feel. Sharing positive emotions can sometimes be as hard as sharing negative emotions. They often have borderline drinking habits, or low level drug habits. They self-loathe, though they will often make humour of it. They rarely see personal achievements and can be very critical of themselves. They will throw themselves into work, even to the point of being workaholics, and yet those who know them well will see that they can find elements of the work that they seem to strive in difficult or a slog.

These behaviours aren’t uncommon but because the person is “doing great” to the outside world it’s always a “shock”, “out of character” or “so unexpected” when they break. Often it’s the headline after a train jumper, or a celebrity suicide – “it was out of character”. But for those living with someone who suffers from this it’s rarely entirely unexpected, though no less devastating. For years the people we love who battle depression will have episodes and for those who are high functioning these episodes can be the result of a relationship break down, financial crisis or a family crisis. Or they can be the cause of these issues.

Sometimes it’s hard to separate cause and effect. What was a minor financial blip turns into major debt as they try to cover up their fear of inadequacy and hide their “failures”. They start off drinking wine after work then one day they’re standing on a  train station platform with an empty bottle of vodka. Sometimes the things they do can make situations worse and other times it’s simply a terrible situation to begin with. It’s why PTSD and  the like don’t affect everyone in terrible situations and for some the symptoms and signs go unseen for so long until one day it’s too late.

The scary part is that catching them before they fall isn’t always easy and, devastatingly, not always possible. Knowing the signs helps and can literally save a life. The person will often become less communicative and less confidence. They may become work-obsessed or very focused. They might be a little more evasive and moody. But generally the symptoms and signs that a break is coming are brief and can be missed. So how do you deal with that, knowing that someone you love is at a higher risk of suicide or a violent or sudden break down?

It’s hard and support for you is as important as support for them. While it’s great to encourage them to get help, and getting medication and treatments such as CBT can make a difference, they need to want help and sometimes they are just too ill in the moment to recognise that. Helping them through to a point where they see they need help takes time and strength and a lot of love.

But you need support too, friends or family you can confide in, people you can call on. Knowing the services that are out there, like charities and emergency services, is important. Don’t be embarrassed or scared to use them – it’s what they’re there for. The emergency service personnel are often trained to deal with situations where a person may be a danger to themselves, and charities and medical services can provide emergency treatment or even just a conversation that can talk someone down in a dangerous situation. Using these resources can help and encouraging your loved one to have contact numbers to hand might help to.

When my partner had a break down, it seemed like a normal day. He had a normal work schedule and we had our normal routine. But that day he just couldn’t. He walked to the door but could go no further. He wanted nothing more than to just disappear. So he tried to. When it happened, we kept it between close friends. We told ourselves this comparative secrecy was because we didn’t want to risk his job. In reality, I was scared that the shame and regret he would have felt if people knew might have pushed him to the edge again.

But I learnt that day that our experience wasn’t unusual. I learnt how seriously the police take a phone call from a panicked member of the public concerned that a missing loved one is suicidal. I learned what measures are in place for emergency mental health assessment and I learnt that I wasn’t the only person to go through this, even within my circle of friends. That day I realised that while, for his sake, keeping it quiet might have been best, talking about it with those I trusted actually might be my only solace at a time when my best friend hated himself and his life so much he was willing to escape it one day, but the next would bottle it all up again and put on that mask, pick up his briefcase and go into work like nothing was ever wrong.

It’s up to those who know their loved one is still ill to be strong and constant for them. I sat in a mental health ward waiting area and in an emergency nurses office while he discussed what he may or may not have taken, how he was feeling and if he still felt suicidal. I let him talk through his options with a professional and tried so hard not to cry when they suggested overnight hospital care. I talked to a doctor for him when he started to feel embarrassed and I shared elements of our private lives with people I’d never met before in a cold white room while they scribbled notes.

But we survived. We got help. He had an appointment to see a mental health therapist who specialised in one-on-one treatments, CBT, hypnotherapy, meditation and relaxation methods. But the journey back to “normal” took time. To those who don’t know him well, it was a few weeks off work with stress, a case of over-worked-and-a-bit-tired. Those who helped us in the days after though, they spoke with us both about their experiences and we realised then that “normal” was just a mask that we put on every day.

Ultimately this is quite a scary and seemingly lonely experience. But there are lots of people out there who suffer from mental illness and those who are high functioning are actually quite common. There are support networks, social media groups and charities that can bring people together. Breaking down the taboos of mental illness is the best way forward but this is slow going, myths remain and sigma surrounding the unhealthy life styles that these illness can lead to often force the issue further under the radar.

But you are not alone. There are lots of us out there and we can support each other. We know what it’s like, how someone’s refusal or inability to open up can be maddening. We know those fears when someone you love is down and won’t talk to you. We know that little worried voice that says they might have an episode and that you might not be able to reach them to help. Being honest and opening up, both with your loved one who suffers and with others, helps. It helps you to see there are more people on your side. It helps them to see the love, respect and time you have for them. It shows them the safety net that’s there. Whether a lover, a parent, a sibling or a friend, someone with high functioning depression needs that person who knows, who can work through each issue with them. Talking about it might not make it go away but it doesn’t hide it, and hiding it is the most dangerous thing to do.

It’s been a few years since my partner had his worst episode. It was traumatic but through it we grew closer. He sought help, he’s getting better and we communicate more. I don’t stop worrying but I don’t hide away. I live every day and I don’t let that worry stop us planning our future, booking holidays and starting to watch a new series on Netflix together. But when he doesn’t answer his phone or he is very late home from a football game with his mates, a trip to the pub or a normal working day, I won’t lie – there’s a bit of me that gets scared. It’s an illness like any other and as yet there’s really no cure, just treatments, so we take each day each day as it comes.

Now I Go For Walks And Find Castles

When athletes talk about breaking through the wall, they’re usually referring to the wall you hit twenty miles into a marathon or the wall you hit when you’re straining to lift more than you’ve ever lifted before, not the wall you hit when you’ve been walking for less than a minute. But that’s where my wall is. My wall often hovers in front of me and sometimes it collapses around me. My own personal tonne of bricks. My ominous, lightning-struck tarot tower. But what is a pile of rubble if not a challenge to climb?

I live in a suburb barely on the outskirts of the centre of town but because this is Edinburgh, where dormant volcanoes and chunks of mountain rise from the city, there is a forest park five minutes from my front door. Recently I have been exploring this forest park, slowly and in small sections, savouring every moment because you only get to go somewhere for the first time once. I take different paths each time with no idea where each one leads, relying on a sense of direction that is not calibrated for roads but never fails in nature. Today, I climbed not only my metaphorical fallen wall but also a literal hill.

It was a gradual incline at first, then a steeper one, but I’m tenacious and I love a good view so I climbed. The people I passed on my way likely thought I was at the end of a long and strenuous run, not the beginning of a comparatively short but still strenuous walk. I get embarrassed being out of breath in front of people. It feels like failure. Then I remember that they see me for only a few seconds and I probably don’t even register on their radar. My heart that always beats a little faster than it should, leaping sharply at the slightest provocation but barely speeding up further even when I’m gasping for breath and dripping with sweat, was dancing in my chest as I reached the top, rounded a corner and encountered a castle.

I’m not speaking in metaphors here. There was an actual castle at the top of the hill. I knew it existed but I didn’t realise that was where it was or that I was going to see it today. I stopped to catch my breath and take a picture. I always take pictures when I’m walking because on the days, weeks, months and years when I can’t walk I look at the pictures to be reminded that there are times when I can. Chronic illness can drop you into a bizarre wonderland without warning but so can anything else and sometimes castles appear out of nowhere just when you need a little bit of extra magic in your life.

My activity tracker buzzed on my wrist and the voice of its accompanying mobile app interrupted the music playing through my earphones to give me an update on my distance and speed. Those numbers are good to hear but it could say nothing more than “You are putting one foot in front of the other” and that would be enough for me. I caught myself wondering if I was feeling better, which is a strange state of questioning for me because I have no reliable frame of reference for ‘better’. When other people ask me that, the only way I know how to respond is to say that today I am able to do this, whatever that means. Before, when I had a good day or a good week, there was a little voice in my head that whispered, “This is it, this is the beginning, you’re going to be fine now” and when the next crash came, I hated that voice. Now I let it speak and I reply, “Maybe. Maybe not. But maybe”. I have come to recognise that voice as hope and hope should never be silenced. This is not a fight nor a struggle. There is no against. There is only with.

I looked at the screen of my phone to see how many steps I’d taken and noticed the summary of last night’s sleep. I had been in bed for six hours. I had slept for less than three because my back and legs ached, relentlessly, violently, and the feeling of my nerves and muscles imploding kept me awake. Pain cannot be measured by an activity tracker or displayed by an app and it is an ever-present, impatient, short-tempered teacher. For years, I thought I had to beat it into submission. Now I know that I need to listen to it, to learn from it and to finally understand that it is not a punishment nor a gift. It is simply circumstance.

I wandered beneath the gentle shade of yew trees, planted years ago to allow the lady of the grand house nearby to walk a sheltered path to the castle and I felt history wrap around me, heard the echoes of the steps of everyone who has ever walked under those trees. Walking today, being able to walk today, was not a victory over misfortune nor a triumph over suffering. It was a victory of love, a triumph of acceptance. That’s true of every step, ever, and walking facilitates a unique kind of spontaneous meditation that I always welcome when I’m lucky enough to experience it. It feels like something that has been blocked and caged is finally free to flow. It feels like my mind is open wide.

I remembered a boxer I met at a physiotherapy gym over a decade ago. I’ve written about him before. The one time we met, he strapped gloves to my hands and put on pads so I could hit something, anything, as much as I needed to. And I did, because I needed to so much. Just before everything went black and I had to sit down on the floor of the gym because I was in no way well enough to exert myself like that, he said “You’re an angry little thing, aren’t you?”.

As I made my way onto the final path towards the exit from the forest park, I quietly answered the boxer’s question eleven years late. I was angry, so angry for so long, but I’m not angry any more. Now I’m grateful. Now I go for walks and find castles.

To Someone You Eat Pizza With

Like when someone you haven’t seen in months doesn’t notice how much weight you’ve lost and emptiness tastes so much better than food for a few days after.

When shoulders that can hold up the world seem somehow less than delicate wrists with a child’s watch, hanging loose on bones that still bear the never-quite-healed cracks of too many fractures and the memory of jeans that slid over narrow hips and the gap between waistband and concave stomach.

When you laugh about how sweet you take your coffee because you used to count it as food, the only calories you will allow yourself today, sixteen in each spoonful of sugar, and the habit never totally left, even after you started eating solid things again.

Standing in front of the mirror, breathing in, trying not to long for xylophone ribs and telling yourself over and over that you shouldn’t miss the spikes and troughs of skin stretched over skeleton.

Repeating the mantra it is better to be healthy and trying to resist the urge to stealthily spit the concept of health into a napkin and hold it under the table, rolled in cold spidery hands until you can safely dispose of it without anyone noticing.

And you know you could go back, so easily, any time you wanted but you also know you won’t. You grieve for the loss of the person you were for so many years and the person you might have been, if only. This is not a good if only.

When you refer to how you used to have an eating disorder and drape what you hope is a casual smile across your face because you don’t think anyone could look at you and believe there was ever a time in your life when you didn’t really eat. Because you do eat now. Of course you do. Obviously. Except for the times when you don’t.

When you get scared of the space you take up so you cut the food on your tiny plate into miniature pieces, eat half of them and spend the next twenty minutes arranging the rest into the corner of a circle, a place that doesn’t even exist.

When you fix your eyes on the bathroom wall and refuse to look down in the shower because today you don’t want to see, but you still allow your mind to wander over the parts of your body that didn’t used to be there, telling yourself again that yes, this is worth it. No matter how much, on some days, it feels like it isn’t.

When he wraps his arms around you and says you’re so tiny and you know that he means it in comparison to his own broad shoulders and hands that easily encase the width of your back and not like the ache of tentatively expressed concern as he counts the bones of your spine with his fingertips again.

And if you ever need to be reminded why you left yourself behind and became something less like a ghost and more like a real person with all the solidity that involves, you look in his eyes and convince yourself to accept the beauty reflected in his smile that no mirror ever allowed you to feel.