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When did you last make time for your wellness?

For me, the answer was never. Then I found out what happens when you don't

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Wellness. It wasn’t really a thing if you grew up in the 70s and 80s. Like mental health, depression, anxiety, period pain and PMS (I could go on but you get the gist) it was just one of those things that fell into the already over-stuffed category of “put up and shut up”, “what are you making a fuss about?” and "pull yourself together." Self-care wasn’t even a glimmer in a venture-capitalist's eye, let alone a billion dollar industry and, if it had been, it would have been a luxury most ordinary people could not afford. All around, everyone was busy getting on with the business of life – earning money, paying the bills, work, work, working – and the mantra of the day, the goal for any self-respecting teenage girl (with or without a copy of The Female Eunuch under the bed) with a smidgeon of ambition was to get up and on and out. To start climbing and to never stop until you reached... where exactly?

It was a mantra I absorbed fully and wholeheartedly (and somewhat obsessively) somewhere in my teens (when "having it all" was still a seemingly achievable dream not a toxic hiding to nothing that left us exhausted and feeling like a failure on all fronts) and one that governed my life. Until it didn’t. And it didn’t only because my body pulled the rug out from under me utterly and completely almost ten years ago. (For visual evidence, see the pic below of me looking tense and crap, taken in 2012, by my beloved and saved for whenever I need proof that I've done the right thing. Which is not so often any more...)

My body had tried to put the brakes on my brain before, many times. I had what I now realise was a breakdown as long ago as 1998 when I was Editor of the now-defunct Minx magazine. (I’m not sure why I’m bothering to say now-defunct because that's the default for so many magazines now 😞).  I repeated that experience x 10 on Cosmopolitan when I had an infestation of mouth ulcers so bad I couldn’t eat or drink anything but cold water, and even that stung. When, panic-stricken at taking time off, I phoned the GP to ask when I could go back to work, a nurse called me back and ended up so frustrated by my mumbled incoherent stone-walling that she shouted down the phone that I was “not so bloody important” that I couldn’t take a week off. She was right, of course. I did what I was told, although it was more like three weeks than one.  It took me almost another decade to really hear her though.

The big one came seven or eight years later, towards the end of my tenure on Red. Where I was known for my intolerance of anything I deemed too woo-woo or ding-ding. Self-care? Not on my watch! Which only goes to show how bloody wrong you can be paid to be.

A less than flattering pic of me towards the end of my time on Red in 2012. 46 looking 106.

It was brought on by many things, but chief amongst them was a toxic combination of obsessive working, regularly 12 hours plus a day, and a growing frustration at being taken for granted by my bosses. The truth was, nobody asked me to work all hours of the day and night and nobody thanked me for it. Why would they? I was doing it for my own perverse, subconscious reasons, even if it felt compulsory to me at the time. My bosses didn't care if I worked seven hours a day or 17, as long as the job got done (and done well) and the only person who even noticed I only took three weeks holiday a year was me... (And my family, of course.)

To cut a long story short, I got a chest infection which became bronchitis which became chronic. The Fashion Director (thank you Nic!) took it upon herself to send me home from Milan Fashion Week early, because I couldn't or wouldn't do it myself. Too late, the bronchitis morphed into pneumonia. Countless different types of antibiotics had no impact other than to give me MRSA. A GP signed me off and told me to stay home in bed, he'd call me daily to check in. Hospital wasn’t an option, because what I had could “kill an older, weaker person”. Bedside manner wasn’t in his job description, clearly. Still I didn’t see it. Still I was desperate to get back to work.

I tell you this because yesterday I stumbled across this post on @djfattony’s Instagram feed and it brought me up short. Yes, it's a massive cliché. But the thing about clichés is they're often clichés because they're true. And I know that because I learnt this particular one the hard way. 

For the best part of thirty years I went on and on and on, working and climbing and working some more, putting that above everything else – even writing three novels while editing Cosmo and Red.  From outside this probably looks like type-A over-achieving, but it's not, it's stupidity, it's never feeling like anything's enough, it's probably a form of OCD, it's definitely fear of sitting still. (Or sitting with your feelings... Shudder.) Until my body, which had been whispering and nudging and clearing its throat and occasional giving me a fat lip suddenly screamed ENOUGH.

The incident I describe above is only, of course, the beginning of my “journey to wellness”. Ugh ugh ugh ugh ugh. I literally hate myself for even writing that but I’m not sure how else to describe it, because that is what it is. It took me the best part of ten years, several operations, hours and hours of therapy and our good friend perimenopause to get from there to here. I’m one of the lucky ones. There's not a day I'm not aware of that. I could afford it. I didn’t have to wait months on NHS waiting lists for a gynaecological operation to stop torrential bleeding or six therapy sessions that would barely scratch the surface before shoving me back out to fend for myself. And, by some miracle, I’m not divorced.

I know I’m far from alone in this experience, or a variation on it. Women in general – and of my generation, and older, in particular – are so bloody bad at looking after themselves, listening to their body and knowing when to say enough. In part, it’s because we’ve been trained not to, to keep going til we fall down; we don’t feel entitled to (as we don’t feel entitled to so many things and, anyway, entitlement is a bad thing, right? Especially in women...). But also it's because it’s only in the last decade or so – thanks millennials, and I mean that sincerely not snarkily – that it’s felt permissible to acknowledge weakness. Even calling it weakness shows how hard that long engrained habit is to break. It is not, we are now learning , weakness to acknowledge our own emotional needs (that we have any, let alone that we plan to give them space) and everso occasionally to put them first before our body has to take over and force us to.

It’s a lesson I don’t think I truly learnt until I saw it first hand, when my millennial friend and then-agent Abi gave me a masterclass in looking after yourself. (Although I’m sure she wouldn’t see it that way.) Having experienced a year or so of extreme working conditions, being on 24/7 and under immense stress, she shocked everyone by deciding to take a step back. She called a halt, took time out, resigned from her high profile job and forced herself to rest, to get comfortable with “just being”. (Even writing that phrase makes me twitch.) Then, barely a year later, she came back even stronger. I have never been more impressed in my life. In her very early thirties, she'd had the self-awareness and the courage to not just see what was happening but to understand it and, without apology, do what she needed to do to ensure her own mental and physical well-being, regardless of how that looked or felt to other people. It wasn't about them. It was about her and what she needed. How refreshing is that?

I can’t help wondering how different life might have been if I’d listened to my body the first time I had a breakdown, not the third or fourth. (And as an aside, what, if any, impact that might have had on my experience of perimenopause… something to think about for another time, maybe.)

I’d never understood the notion of somatic illness – or that it even existed – until my therapist pointed out to me that was what was going on. And, for me, the only way I could have permission to stop was when my body quite literally took me out at the knees. I couldn’t make that decision for myself. I had to be unable to get out of bed or ordered not to by someone in authority ie a doctor.  (I'm not alone in that either, when I was researching The Shift book several women told me that it was only when they were properly, seriously ill that they felt entitled to step back from responsibility and put themselves first.) My own authority, such as it was, clearly not enough for me. Although if any of my then-staff had called me in the same position, I would have unhesitatingly told them to go to bed and stay there until they were well. Like many of us, I was a compassion-free zone when it came to myself.

Even now, while I write this from my perch where I consider myself "better", my inner-workaholic is rattling her cage and screaming, “Self care! Who even are you?” as she conjures mocking memes of scented candles, foamy baths and me-time. Even now, I panic if I fear I'm not working hard enough or if I’ve shut my laptop before 6pm or taken a couple of hours out to walk down to the sea and, you know, just be. Somewhere in the distance I know I'm going to hear a bell, ding-ding.

Useful reads:
The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk (Opens in a new window)
Recommended by Ruth Ozeki on The Shift podcast, this is a fascinating look at where trauma goes and how it impacts on our bodies. It looks a bit daunting (v dense type!) but is actually unputdowable.
How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell (Opens in a new window)
My friend Abi tipped me off to this Obama-recommended self help manual come political manifesto. If you, like me, spent most of your life believing doing nothing is a crime, this will mess with your head and leave you changed

What, if anything, do you do to safeguard your wellness? Does self-care secretly make you shudder? Let me know by commenting on the post.

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