Building up and slimming down; weight and image post-abuse.

One of the exercises we did together on the domestic abuse recovery course was to create an image of a victim of domestic abuse, sketched out on the flip chart by the facilitator. Our cartoon woman wasn’t necessarily covered in bruises, after all not everyone is a victim of physical violence, it was more about capturing the effects of living with long term emotional and psychological abuse. She was, we decided, either underweight from chronic stress and not being able to eat, or overweight from comfort eating. Bags and dark circles under her eyes from stress-related insomnia. Her hair was a mess, her clothes frumpy as she couldn’t justify spending any money on herself – even if she had any money to spend. She might be missing a tooth after not taking care or herself, or maybe she was grinding her teeth at night. Her shoulders were constantly up around her ears, stiff with stress and anxiety, causing tension that gave her migraines. Her expression was a rigid mask of fear, always worrying about what was going to happen next, scanning the horizon for the next attack, or frowning as her mind replayed what had already happened. She might well have developed an ongoing health complaint; as well as migraines and insomnia there could be IBS, panic attacks, hypertension, eczema as well as even more serious issues. She wasn’t looking good, in other words.

At home the decluttering continues, and it seems to be time to tackle the photos. As well as boxes of unsorted prints, CDs, memory sticks and folder after folder of digital shots, there are now several albums of unwanted memories. What do you do with your wedding album now that you’re divorced? Burn it? Keep it for the kids? Going through the pictures I’m struck by how unbelievably pale I look – some kind of iron supplement intervention was surely required – and how thin I am, my dress being taken in to a UK size 10 for the big day. Happy too, so very happy. In those days I had no problem posing for photographs, could look in the mirror and smile at myself. Now I shy away from cameras and tend to avoid mirrors, my reflection usually making my heart sink. Who is that woman? I don’t recognise myself – the extra weight, the thinning, frizzy hair, dull eyes and resigned expression. She feels so heavy, this stranger in the mirror, not just her bloated belly and aching legs but her spirit too. Can she possibly be the same person as the beaming young woman in her wedding dress? It doesn’t seem likely. She’s the woman from the flip chart, self esteem eroded and replaced by self-neglect, health suffering, defeated.

Body positivity seems to be a new trend, with fashion models ranging from what can only be described as normal (rather than seriously underweight) to curvaceous to overweight now being called body activists. I’m all for a healthier depiction of female bodies rather than only young, skinny, flawless forms being shown in the media, but frankly? Fat is fat. Right now, I’m overweight. Fat. Not a body activist. I’ve gone up from a size 12-14 to a 16-18, perhaps even larger at times. Most of my clothes no longer fit. And while I could embrace body positivity and learn to love myself the way I am, that’s not going to help my arteries, or my pre-diabetic state. Being overweight isn’t healthy. Being underweight isn’t healthy either. And while we shouldn’t be shaming each other over our weight, let’s not pretend that being obese is good for you, no matter how lovely your Instagram posts look. I hate feeling this way, heavy and bloated and tired, no energy or enthusiasm, no shine in my eyes. While I will never be that skinny girl in the photos again, it’s time to change, both inside and out. I need to lose around 4 stone – 4! – to get down to a healthy weight. I want to wake up in the morning feeling energised rather than exhausted. Above all, I’d like to be able to look into the mirror and smile at myself again. The mission; building myself up inside, while slimming down the outside.

Progress is slow and it’s hard not to rely on sugar as an emotional crutch, particularly when Lily is is giving me a hard time – and generally Lily is always giving me a hard time. A couple of times previously I’ve tried to start losing the weight, only for life to crash and burn around me; out came the chocolate again. This time I’ve lost maybe two pounds, but the scales seem to already be stuck, not moving any further down. But I have to go gently, have to trust that this will work, that I’m capable of succeeding. After years of hauling myself through a marriage devoid of affection, after living with a husband who never reached for me, after enduring the emotional and psychological torment of the past few years, I’m not willing to put myself through more. No more abuse, no beating myself up, no blame, no shame. I reached for food rather than the bottle during a time of unbearable stress, even while knowing there would ultimately be a price to pay. But now it’s time. It has to be. My journey back to wellbeing has to come from self-kindness rather than a form of self-hatred. To make healthier choices out of love for myself, wanting to heal my body, rather than punishing myself or feeling deprived. And to do it while loving myself – or learning to love myself – rather than hiding from my own reflection.

Beltane Moon

The kids have been dropped off at school. I’m supposed to be attempting the 5:2 intermittent fasting diet, but I stop off at the farm cafe on the way home, ostensibly to buy flowers for May Day – I’ll do my best to resist the almond croissants, even though I’m already hungry and it’s not quite 9am. The flowers here are usually beautiful, locally grown and artfully put together, but today they’re a little disappointing, the daffodils clearly having passed their best. Not worth the £9.95 price tag. I could point out their flaws and ask for a discount, but I’m not in the mood. They’re a gift for a friend who is going through chemo; she deserves more than flowers I’ve had to haggle over. The cafe used to be my favourite, but it’s since been taken over by the local gentry, the car park full of Range Rovers, posh people braying about their holiday plans. My god, but posh people talk loudly. They dominate the space, interrupt my thoughts, make it impossible for me to sit and quietly write.

May Day. The year is flying past already – is the world speeding up or is this the inevitable affect of age? Years seemed to creep by so slowly when I was a kid, and now I can’t keep up. “Have you got a busy day ahead?” the young man asks me as he hands me my tea – I’m proud to say I resisted the croissant. It’s a question I hate. My days seem pointless, full of chores but nothing I could point to and get excited about, nothing that seems worthwhile. I tell him that I was supposed to be taking my friend to chemo, but she’s not well enough and I’m waiting to hear what she feels up to doing. I don’t tell him that the flowers were crap this morning, clearly he’s on barista duty so it’s not his fault. I don’t tell him that my life feels pointless, that my mind is full of depression, anxiety and trauma, that I can’t seem to think clearly any more and I’m struggling to keep on top of the day to day tasks. That when I think about the days ahead, all I see is relentless treadmill of school runs, cooking, washing up and nagging the kids to get up, get ready, do homework, go to bed and occasionally take a bath. I used to be fun, I think. Nowadays I can’t remember what fun feels like, what on earth I’d do to feel that way again, how to get it back. I used to make sure we went out at the weekends, did an activity together, went to a museum or gallery or day out. Since Lily moved back full time, I’ve been too exhausted, have found myself trying to work out how to make a meal from chickpeas and slightly out of date bacon rather than having to drag myself to the shops.

Once I read a post by a young woman suffering from a debilitating condition that left her with chronic fatigue, trying to explain to a friend why she couldn’t always manage to meet up. The gist was that she only had 10 spoons worth of energy per day. Every single task required energy – getting out of bed, showering, getting dressed used up about 3. Even pleasant activities such as meeting a friend for lunch took up another couple of spoons, which meant that on some days she just couldn’t do it – and also showed how much she treasured her friend, in that she was willing to spend some of her spoons in order to spend time with her. I’ve never had a diagnosis to explain why my energy levels are so poor – there’s anaemia for sure, hormonal issues, post-viral fatigue, weird metabolism and blood sugar issues; I just know that certainly since puberty I’ve constantly struggled to have enough energy to get through the day. The difficulty comes when you wake up and have only 3 spoons to get you through the day, rather than the expected 10; or that the day ahead is a 20 spooner. Further difficulties arise when you’re surrounded by people who have never experienced what the doctors call TATT – Tired all the time, who judge you for being lazy. It’s not laziness; on the days when my energy levels are good, I prove this to myself by running around doing everything that needs to be done, knowing that I need to make the most of it. Waking up already exhausted rather than refreshed is hellish. I look down out of my window at the small area that I’ve cleared and planted, wanting to get out and mulch it, having to weigh up the energy cost against knowing I’ve still got to drive to pick the kids up, cook a meal, wash up, get them to bed. I don’t have enough spoons.

Depression worsens fatigue. Fatigue can cause depression. Bit of a vicious cycle, that one. My friend texts to say she fancies a walk across the hills followed by a coffee. I want to cry. Can’t we just have the coffee? The walk will mean I don’t have enough energy to garden today, or at least not to tackle the jobs I was hoping to do. She has cancer, dammit, and I’m the one moaning about energy levels. ADHD has an impact, having the equivalent of 105 tabs open in the brain at once all running together is tiring. Not getting enough sleep, not eating enough protein, developing an unhealthy reliance on sugar as an emergency fix; none of it is helping. Some would say I need to get more exercise, they might well be right, but how do you exercise when you’re already exhausted? Learning more about ADHD has led to experimentation with caffeine as a form of self-medication, to see if it helps settle my mind and help me focus; Pukka’s Lean Green Tea feels good, but switching from decaf tea to full strength tea and coffee seems to have mainly brought on severe headaches; caffeine fail. I’m left not knowing whether to take more naps, or take more walks, rest more or power on through. The phrase I need a break plays through my head like a mantra – I so desperately need a holiday that doesn’t involve camping or self-catering or struggling with Lily’s outbursts.

Gentle, I try and remind myself. Go gently. There’s no point in beating myself up over anything. When progress feels so frustratingly slow, it’s vital to raise flags over every tiny success, every step forward, so that there’s something to look back on, something to cheer you on. A Ta Da list as well as a To Do list. Sometimes you need to turn around and see how far you’ve come before you tackle the mountains ahead.

I catch a glimpse of the Moon as I stand up to go to bed – rising over the distant hill, almost full, twice her normal size, her halo rendering the clouds around her inky blue and copper. It’s a stunning sight that lifts my spirits, a reminder that there’s more to life than the endless rota of chores. A moment of beauty. Beauty. It’s something I need more of in my life – not the chauvinistic hectoring of the fashion magazines about what face cream I should be using, and keeping my eyebrows in shape, but true beauty, duende, being emotionally transformed by a work of art, or nature herself. I wish I could photograph her to capture this moment, but the end result looks like someone is shining a very small torch a very long way away. The beautiful moon is a reminder that life is more than this, more precious than what my life has become. The moon waxes and wanes and goes dark before shining again, the tiniest sliver of light in the night sky, far more mysterious than the sun. And as she rises, so can I; sometimes waxing, sometimes waning, sometimes hiding away but always ultimately shining.