Mental Health Matters

Over the week of 13 - 19 May I posted a series of blogs on Facebook and other social media channels to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, highlighting Body Image. In this post I have collated all of the blogs into one spot, just incase you missed any of them.

The stories told below are from people who rarely talk about what they have written so putting finger to board has been a cathartic exercise for them and I’m sure has inspired a few out there who are going through the same as my contributors.

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I started with a blog that I wrote in the summer of 2018 called ‘Dear Legs. Yours sincerely, Brain’ I won’t go over what I wrote as it says it all in the blog but for me, putting it down on paper was a realisation that I am strong and that my body is stronger than I give it credit for.

Next up was Alex Staniforth, adventurer and all round amazing chap. I first met Alex whilst attempting to climb Everest in 2015. We shared base camp for 10 days before heading up through the Khumbu Icefall on 25th April. We had hoped to share a positive outcome to climbing Everest and we were lucky to come away with our lives after the earthquake that rocked Nepal, all be it very shaken and stirred.

Since then I've followed his exploits around the UK via social media and was lucky enough to catch up with him yesterday at the The Duke of Edinburgh's Award at Buckingham Palace in happier and less stressful times.

Alex speaks very eloquently about his fight with bulimia. It's good to talk. Click here to read Alex’s story

To follow Alex click through to his website www.alexstaniforth.com where you can find his other social media links.

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On May 15th I shared Tanya Noble’s story of going from full on to standing still, literally overnight. A fellow SayYesMore advocate, I’ve always seen her getting out there and living life at full speed. What happened over New Year took everyone by surprise, not least Tanya herself.

It’s the 12th week after open heart surgery. It wasn’t really what I had had planned for 2019 and most definitely was not on my ‘yes list’. From what started as tonsillitis on New Year's Day, culminated in a serious bacterial infection and being admitted to hospital and treated for sepsis, pericarditis and pleurisy/pneumonia.

It has been life changing, not in the sense that I have not made a recovery or there will be repercussions down the line (fingers crossed), but the time it has given me and the immense love and support I was shown by family and friends. Not only have I had time to recover and be so grateful for modern medicine but grateful at how my body was strong enough to get through it and time to realise that maybe I need to love myself and my body that little bit more!

Looking back there was a time when I was really comfortable in my own skin. When it came to purchasing clothes the more holes or more sheer the better (I'm in the red in the first pic below!). I was at Uni, I was in a relationship and I had a great social life with amazing friends who all lived a walkable distance away. I guess I had no reason to be anxious.

My wardrobe was made up of 25% work clothes, 10% ‘swag’ – (t-shirts and hoodies clients had given me to wear) and 65% clothes I liked and wish I had more time to wear. Yes, more than half my wardrobe was made up of clothes I did not wear often but ones that I thought made me feel more ‘attractive’ aka noticed! Looking back now I cannot believe I spent money like that.

Not being in a relationship for the majority of my 30s, I am now 38, has meant I have gone through times when I felt ‘not noticed.’ In my head it went ‘I work in a male dominated environment yet I’ve not been ‘noticed’ enough to develop a relationship with anyone.’ Of course this was anxiety talking – I had had relationships they just hadn’t worked out. This anxiety has meant I did go through stages of diets and fitness regimes – if I was fitter, if I was thinner, if my stomach was flat - I would be more attractive. None of these ‘regimes’ worked, of course they didn’t. The issue was with feeling attractive and that became measured by how attractive I felt to the opposite sex! No relationship = not attractive.

It is only recently that I really have noticed body image can very much be in your head and actually has very little to do with size! You can lose weight but still you are not happy, you still notice those troublesome areas. Since leaving hospital recently I lost a lot of weight (I had gained over a stone and half extra of fluid during my illness). Despite this I would catch myself looking in the mirror and notice those ‘wobbly bits’ – despite being the lightest I have been for years!

Getting fitter naturally you feel more attractive – and primarily that's down to mental strength and having those endorphins pumping.

Triking 750 miles last year on my first self powered journey brought back those self-love feelings of my uni days. I loved my body because it had carried me that far, even when my mind wanted to give up it refused. Getting messages that I was an inspiration and from complete strangers that they loved following my journey meant far more. When my motivation to do it wasn’t getting noticed in the attractiveness sense I came out with far more than any dress and new shoes could ever make me feel!

I guess all the time I have had to process thoughts recently has helped enormously. When I have visited friends in the past few weeks who saw me when I was first discharged from hospital, they now say ‘ wow, you are looking really good’ – ‘you are looking like you again.’ And that is what this is all about.

I am me – attractiveness is not measured by body size, by that allusive flat stomach, and it certainly is not measured by being in a relationship or not.

It’s a weird place I am currently in as while my fitness levels are no where near back at that climbing hills level, I am here telling this story. I have become determined to live a life embracing me as I am. Rather than my scar down my sternum being a weakness or a flaw I’m using it as a reminder of strength. Strength of my body, mind and most importantly that I am not alone. I am loved.

To end the fitting words of the all time greatest soundtrack.

“I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me”

Today I'd like to share a story from Jo Costello. Jo and I first met last year when we were planning an expedition. I picked her up at Frome train station having never met before and I was bowled over by her incredible locks and her effervescent character. We got chatting straight away and could have continued chatting into the wee small hours if trains back home hadn't got in the way.

Here is her story of how body image has had an impact in her life and her message to you.

Tiny Ginger Ninja or Irish Viking?

Ginger nut. Freckle face.Carrot top. Duracell .In the grand scheme of things these seem harmless comments, thrown around casually nearly every day so that it becomes the norm.

I'm an Army brat so myself and brothers moved to a new school every two years or so. I'm also a twin, he has dark curly hair, blue eyes and pale skin, the younger brother blonde hair and green eyes so I guess we all stood out. In Hong Kong I was used to being stared at, the locals in the market would pat or touch my hair and they were genuinely fascinated.

My first school, Hong Kong and I don't recall being a target for comments. After moving back to England, new school first day and it began with the sniggering and pointing. To set the picture I was a very small child with a huge head of long red curls and a face and body plastered in freckles, a sign of beauty if you believe your Grandma. Then we get to the first break in the playground and this is where the questions and comments start.

"Ugh, you're really ugly, why are you covered in spots?" 
"Why don't you have proper hair?"
My responses were always loud, angry and aggressive, I went from 0 to 90 with nothing in between. Then the school bully or hard case would join in and it nearly always became physical. I was a small kid, aged 7 wearing aged 4-5 clothes and at the first punch or hair pull (I had a lot to grab) my inner Tasmanian Devil surfaced and I would fight like someone possessed and not stop until pulled apart by a teacher.

So the first school day ends with a note going home to my parents and the other kids realising it was a bloody stupid idea to tease me. My Mum would go nuts and my Dad would be pleased I had stood my ground. And so this was the pattern throughout my schools years. I can honestly say it didn't upset me and I was always prepared for the next round of ignorance, it was almost the boredom of "here we go again" which irritated the hell out of me.

I went to school in Germany in 1974, again the only redhead and again the locals are fascinated, I got a lot of free sweets and ice cream from shop keepers.

Bring on the teenage years and the comments take on a different flavour.

"Do the carpets match the curtains?"
"You'll never get a boyfriend unless you bleach your hair"
"I've never slept with a redhead, I bet you're wild" This comment in particular was vile, I was 13 or 14 and out playing cricket in the street.

I love my hair, love being different and the more folk were negative the more I embraced being that fiery crazy redhead.

I lived abroad and travelled a lot and the reactions to my hair and skin colour is nearly always positive and people are very forthcoming with compliments. Maybe this is a part of why I enjoy travel, I'm made to feel very exotic! When I go home to Ireland I don't feel as unique, however it's the place I get the most compliments. In Germany as an adult and I'm swimming at an outdoor pool, a guy walks over with his friend and asks if I can turn around to show his friend my back! I'm fairly indignant and ask him what the hell he's on, his response, "we think you are beautiful, like a leopard".

Since when did it become popular to really slate "gingers"? Social media tells us it's Kick a Ginger day. This came about after an episode of South Park, which I love by the way. Cartman, the show's most narrow minded, derogatory character convinces the school and eventually the whole town to discriminate against the "Ginger Kids". The show tastefully delivers the message about how easily one person can convince the opinion of the masses, creating stupidity and hatred.
There's also Kiss a Ginger day, I don't think I would relish strangers kissing or kicking me.

I think my point is don't let the small minded buggers grind you down, we are all special, we are all incredible in our own ways. If you have a redhead child tell them how unique they are, if they have the coarse, mad curly hair then for the love of god don't brush it, show them the medical research on how we have a higher pain tolerance but do stress we need that sunscreen and above all rock that red hair!

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I first met Jago at #yestival2017 when we talked big mountains, many adventures and just getting on with life despite his #cysticfibrosis. What an inspirational young man.

Jago is a fellow SayYesMore Ambassador and optimises that ethos through his life, and by saying yes to writing a blog for my post during #mentalhealthawarenessweek with the focus on body image. Thanks for sharing Jago, what a star!

My65roses - My Body Image Story

It’s very difficult to pin point when you first realise that you weren’t happy with your body image. From being teased as a child to more serious comments as an adolescent teen, we all experience some form of negative self-reflection on our body. Most people refer to body image issues as being too fat around the stomach, or chunky thighs or even chubby arms and legs. I had experienced the opposite to these types of weight issues; the fact being that I struggled to put it on and keep it up.

From a young age, I grew exceptionally quickly. My family would always joke about how I would stand out at least a foot above my other classmates from 8 to 13 years old. But it was great for me, I really enjoyed being the tallest and reaching 6ft by the age of 14 made me feel like a giant. But for as long as I can remember, I have always been called ‘too skinny’ and ‘lanky’. If you ask any number of girls who have experience this, they would all agree that it is as insulting and demoralising as being called fat. The issue being that as I was a young male and confident, most people deemed it somehow justified referring to me in this way. There has always been a big stigma around the male body image and how this has affected guys being able to show their emotions that it has caused a more devastating effect in our future generations, in my opinion.

As I stopped growing so much, I felt as if I had to try and fit the ideal masculine image of a ‘man with muscles and as strong as an ox’. I do believe that it was because of social recognition, and not as much expectations, to gain weight as fast as possible as you grew. I hit the protein shakes hard, the weights even harder and eventually was getting to a stage where I was feeling more body confident, in a funny kind of way. As a young teen, I used to get into trouble more than the average student. One of the major factors that had gotten me into trouble was aggressive behaviour which included fighting. I vividly remember being teased such a large amount about being tall and lanky that it infuriated me so much to the point I now have a memory of one of the first punches I threw. I am certainly not proud of that moment, (even if they did kind of deserve it) but the teasing wore off a considerable amount the more I stuck up for myself and defended my ground. I was at a point I was very insecure that I started to feel sorrier for others around me that didn’t defend themselves and possibly got teased a lot worse.

After my diagnosis with Cystic Fibrosis at 14 years old, the penny finally dropped as to why I struggled to put on weight. With my CF, I never knew before that I had to eat a considerably larger amount of calories than my peers: up to 4000 calories per day to be more accurate. It also made sense as to why I trained hard and struggled to progress without the correct physiotherapy and treatment. Looking back at those earlier years, I feel a lot more sorry for myself now than I did then, as I was an angry young man with no understanding as to what I was fighting. When I ate more food and trained harder, I was always ending up ill with infections, compacted stomach and heavy sickness; all the while the comments didn’t stop. In terms of reflecting on my body image after my diagnosis, I felt like a brand new person with a new outlook on life as to what I saw as important and what is important.

The last years of school were a changing point for me which has honestly impacted my life greatly. To this day, I still get many remarks towards my weight and if you have experienced this before, you’ll know that very often it comes from family members and friends. They may not have the intentions to mean unwell although it still cuts at you as they don’t understand the battle you may be going through. Something I have learnt along the way, from staring into the mirror, from working hard on my body, and a lesson that you get told many times in your life is that you can never please everyone: and that will always be so true. When I was at my skinniest after one of my first travelling trips and not being able to keep a high calorie healthy diet, I came home to be told by everyone around me, multiple times that I ‘looked ill’. It was very infuriating and at no point did it make me feel like putting on weight, it only made me vexed at the people saying it to me and not realizing on my reactions that it hurt. After putting on a considerable amount of weight and getting up to 86kg in a few months, I was then teased and told that I was getting too ‘big’ and ‘caring too much about my appearance’. The same person that told me I was too skinny later told me I was too big! I would like to end this paragraph by thanking that person for making me realise how important self-love is.

When I was suffering some of my worst bouts of self-image issues, one of the best phrases I was told was ‘to either love myself or work on myself’. Getting into fitness to put on weight helped boost my self-esteem and confidence through working on external goals. I was no longer looking in the mirror each day and feeling unhappy, I was more interested in lifting a heavier weight, hitting a higher weight goal or even running at my fastest pace or doing a greater amount of pull-ups. Suddenly I had a focused concentration away from the hurtful comments and something I could engage myself in to feel happier with the way I am. It has not been an easy journey and I am sure I will still face many setbacks, but I am proud to be able to say that I have started to fall more in love with my body.

Saturday saw me sharing Jo’s story.

I first met Jo at the SayYesMore. #Yestival2017 in the queue for a cup of coffee and we started talking about tyre pulling and making friends with that mode of training as she was off to attempt to ski the Finnmark Plateau a few months later with Love Her Wild. It was at Yestival that I heard about My Great Escape

I was quite bold when asking various amazing people to write stories for this #mentalhealthweek body image blog of mine, to share their most inner feelings not often shared, and we’ve had stories from all sides of life so far. This is Jo’s story.

As a child all I cared about my body was that I could run, climb, scrap and play. My knees were always scabby, my elbows scrapped and my hair in bunches with purple ribbons flying, always bedecked with twigs and leaves. A Daddy’s girl, a football player, an animal lover and a happy wearer of pink dungarees; unaware my body would confuse, and cause me so much consternation, and so much worry over my lifetime.

As a teen I was goth, then dreadlocked new-age crusty, hidden in huge jumpers and cardigans, boots too big they made me seem even shorter. Make up so dark and hair backcombed no one could see me. My body and identity confused me, I didn’t fit the mould of girlie girl, couldn’t do makeup and just wanted to sit round a fire or dance. Where did me and my body fit into this world?

Mum, my most wonderful role-model, wore little make-up, strongly feminist, she discouraged me from shaving my legs and told me my body was beautiful and strong as it was. There to live with, not for. Not to be defined by clothing or desire. I listened, but I don’t remember believing.

Still, always present the nagging doubt, and the comparisons to everyone else. I was a dancer, a performer, my body on stage for all to see. Was I good enough, thin enough, supple enough? How well did I move? Did my body flow? I was scared yet proud, an applause whore and a shy mouse, all wrapped in a body I judged to be less than the images I saw all around. From the friends and strangers I compared myself too.

Looking back this was the ‘best’ my body had or ever would look, and before what happened next, this was the happiest I felt, until now…

As an abuse victim my body was judged and owned by someone else. My body an accessory to another’s twisted ideas. No longer mine to dress or hide as I chose. The subject of someone else’s constant scrutiny and jealousies. As I grew fatter, he grew happier. No one else will look and want you now. Stay at home, wear what you are told, don’t look at others, don’t talk to others. Stay here, mine, only mine.

My body dreaded touch, feared caresses and kisses were unwelcome, stillness and silence I craved, like air.

In those years, my twenties and thirties someone else defined me, and my body. Did I give them control or did they take it? Through years of subtle manipulation I was undermined, not only my body, but my mind was taken over too. Until all confidence, esteem and sense of self had been eroded. Unsure if my body and mind were even my own anymore. Could they be again?

Yes.

As an abuse survivor my body is MINE now. I am strong, in mind and body. I can share my body with love and eagerness and no embarrassment. With myself, now I am proud. I again run, climb and play. My legs are short but mighty, they carried me away, from pain, to safety.

My incredible, imperfectly perfect body has walked thousands of miles, summited peaks, paddled rivers, oceans and seas, skied in the Arctic and so much more. It is not a magazine body, it has lumps and bumps, cellulite and fat, it has spots and scars, it is ageing…but it is mine. In all of its imperfections and now, in my forties I love it, I am strong and I am finally proud again.

I know my body will turn on me, it has already started, IBS, greying hair, wrinkles, sore knees and a sagging neck, of which I am not a fan. A family history of cancer and heart problems dog my thoughts and now cause me a different kind of body worry. Will I follow my Mother’s double mastectomy footsteps? A worry, a fear, a whole new body image category. My ever-transient relationship with my body will continue, until this body continues no more.

For now, my body helps me show others the way, from surviving to thriving, from abuse to beauty. As abuse survivors - our bodies are our own again - we will conquer mountains, in our minds, lives and with our bodies which we make our own.

When I sat down to write this I had a whole other piece scoped out about body image and abuse. But I let the words flow and here they are, they are real and true and what it seems I want to say. My relationship with my body has fluctuated over my life time as you can see, abuse and my body image wasn’t something I had considered until Jo made me start to think

Body image is a fluctuating, strange thing, you can love and hate your body in the same moment. The importance, I realise for me, is that it is YOUR body, we must protect against it being taken over by others. So many of us are at war with ourselves, let’s not allow others to be too.

For millions of us our body is all we have, the only commodity we can truly call our own. When that is taken through abuse - whatever form it takes - domestic, trafficking, prostitution or otherwise, we must fight with and for those people to return their bodies to themselves.

At My Great Escape we support domestic and relationship abuse survivors to heal through adventure.



To finish off my posts this Mental Health Awareness Week I shared Charley’s story.

I first met Charley Newman a few short years ago on Kilimanjaro when I was leading for 360 Expeditions. She was one of my fabulous group and quite a character. It was one of the hardest decisions on any climb to turn her around due to illness but safety first, she could always come back and she did just that.

This year, on March 7th, she reached the summit pretty much bouncing up this time. We’ve kept in touch since the first climb, becoming friends, and whilst on Kili this year spent a good few hours chatting on the way down to Mweka Gate about life, loves and bodies, amongst other things.

Her story is quite something and shows the devastating impact that other people’s words can have on us. A fitting end to my week of blogs, sharing stories about body image as part of the Mental Health Foundation #mentalhealthawarenessweek

Over to you Charley and next stop - Everest Base Camp!!

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HOW I LEARNT TO LOVE MY BODY FROM STRIPPERS AND DRUNK MEN

I appreciate the click-bait headline might sound disingenuous, but these are the core experiences I contribute to going from hating the imperfect meat sack I was given, to worshipping it for the phenomenal being it is:

1. Surround yourself with body-confident people, it will become your normal

2. Your body is the greatest instrument you’ll ever own (I stole that bit) so maintain it accordingly (that’s all me)

3. Seek AND create your own external validation

I, like most people I know, grew up with a pretty shitty body image. This was reinforced from a young age from sources such as THE WORLD MEDIA, school bullies, Mum, Dad, friends, boyfriends etc A few particularly painful examples that jump out:

• Dad: No wonder you haven’t got a boyfriend with a nose like that. Why don’t you change your clothes. Why don’t you put some make-up on.

• Mum: Your boobs are so small…your butt isn’t as big as hers…If you get 3 A’s at A-Levels I’ll pay for a boob job

• ‘Friend’ at school: Your teeth remind of a rabbit’s

• 1st boyfriend: You’ve lost some weight, you look so much better

• My brain: I’m the fat one in our friendship group. I hate my big nose, flabby stomach, small tits, bingo wings, buck teeth, no-one will ever love me…

WHY CAN’T I LOOK LIKE BRITNEY BLOOMING SPEARS?!!!

I hated my body from being a teenager through to my mid-twenties. I struggled with my weight, hating myself so much I wished I was dead. Because who would love a fat girl with nothing good about her? I tried and failed at every fad diet going. At home, my principle carer was a feeder and used food as a numbing/coping tool, which perpetuated the food shame-guilt-binge-fast cycle. This in turn totally messed up my poor, malnourished, growing body, leading it to store even more fat and meant I continued to be a chubby teenager. Who grew into a physically, emotionally and mentally, unhealthy young woman in their twenties.

I know none of this is new, and is sadly, a painfully common journey for millions. I somehow ended up finding myself on a unique and unintentional route to loving my body. Young female, who still feels like a chubby girl with low-self esteem on the inside, ends up as a strip-club waitress. Freud would be crying in the corner with boredom, but I will cherish that life chapter for what it taught me.

Yes, my parents knew about the job and they were obviously super proud of me…

Long story short, I got myself into a huge amount of debt (£30k in 12 months) whilst backpacking so I applied for a job in a strip-club in Melbourne, having never set foot in one before. I just figured the tips would be awesome. After an eye-opening induction, I got the job and quickly adapted to my new ‘normal’ of sequins, vaginas and $100 dollar bills.

It started with my insecure brain performing a running self-commentary of comparing my own various body parts and against each strippers I saw on stage, ‘my butt’s perkier than hers, she has fake boobs and mine are real, her fake tan is streaky’. A completely screwed up, judgey, shameful dialogue that feels awful to admit and plays into typical female beauty stereotypes, which nowadays make me want to smash stuff. But this is what ran through my sad brain in my desperate attempts to make myself feel better about how I looked.

Slowly and gradually, after 8 months of bartending, I came to learn that being surrounded by goddesses’ owning their beauty, diversity, sexuality and power, was rubbing off on me. These women were every shape, race, size, hair colour, stretch marks, tattoos, it didn’t matter. Every one of them was using their physical form to make hundreds/thousands of dollars a night. I had never before been surrounded by so much body acceptance in a room of women. It didn’t matter that they weren’t perfect, they were still killing it. Flat butts, fake tan and all. So maybe…looks aren’t everything???

Whilst I was working at the club and all the magic stripper body-confidence was permeating into me through osmosis, I started taking pole-dancing lessons. This further helped me to enjoy my body for the creative, wonderful, extraordinary instrument that it is. It was an opportunity to build physical strength, make friends, be openly sexy, express myself through dance and music and build myself into something very strong that I could feel proud of. Every lesson I could feel myself being better and loving myself more each hour spent dancing in front of the mirror. Naturally from working out, my diet got better, I lost some of that puppy fat I’d been hanging onto for 10 years and I got offered a job to teach pole. I was feeling a lot happier, like I wasn’t as broken as I originally thought, which was refreshing and enlightening, life didn’t have to be so hard.

Whilst I was doing the work (at work and in the pole studio) on myself, I also got the external validation that I had craved for so many years. Being told I was gorgeous/beautiful/you should be on that stage/can I get your number a gazillion times a night by drunk customers, did me a world of good. It feels seriously shallow saying that as self-love does truly come from the inside, but seeing as most of the shameful shit and crap has come from external sources, I think it’s ok believing the external sources when it came to the compliments too. We always hang on insults and internalise awful things people say about us but not the nice, lovely ones. Over time I took the compliments to heart, let them in, believed them and let them help heal my sad, inaccurate, fractured idea of how I looked. Even though they were through the lens of Jack Daniels and some dodgy, genital-driven ulterior motives, I chose to agree with them. Now every morning my day starts with self-affirmations and being kind to myself.

I will never forget the colourful underworld of that stripclub. I left with a bucket-load of confidence, a renewed excitement for what was ahead, a connection to the pole dancing community and a true, deep adoration of the body I was blessed with. I have since gone onto climb Kilimanjaro, run a marathon, hike across the Alps and I now willingly spend a lot of time and resources maintaining and cherishing this glorious imperfect meat sack.

Reading all of these blogs when they came in was quite an experience. You think you are alone with your own skewed image of your body but you really aren’t.

To finish off this week of blogs I’d like to add in another one from an amazing lady called Yvie Johnson. She is an incredible illustrator and all round amazing individual who is going through tough times with her body and ME. She’s written a very honest and raw account of both body love and body loathing. Click here to be taken through to her blog and please visit her online shop.

Illustration by Yvie Johnson

Illustration by Yvie Johnson