Changing Tides

I’m standing in a dark room with sweat pouring off my face, slightly breathless, endorphins coursing around my body. In the window next to me I catch my reflection; hair falling over my eyes, dumbbells raised, a focused expression that says, “I’m fucking doing this”. I’m in a room with two other people: the trainer, and a young woman who’s taking this High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class along with me. I feel in control, strong, confident, and like I belong. I’ve been doing this class for about a year and I’ve never been fitter or in better shape. I’m running the Sheffield half-marathon in April 2017 and it doesn’t scare me at all. I know I’ll be fit enough to do it.

I am a different person to who I once was. I have changed irrevocably.

I wanted to write this to prove that it’s possible to force your life into reverse, change direction and become completely renewed. I know it’s possible, because I’ve done it.

I wanted to highlight one instance that would stand as a good comparator to the above scene, to show how different things used to be for me. But when I sat and thought about it, there wasn’t one single occasion that sprang to mind but instead a feeling, a sense of shame – and it’s this that equates to the polar opposite of how I felt in the gym this morning.

It is a slow, creeping cloak of fear that envelops me. It originates in the pit of my stomach, and it spreads up into my heart and all through my limbs. I can feel it in my eyes; it renders me incapable of looking directly at anyone. It’s as though I am walking in a quagmire and my legs are leaden, heavy with dread. I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I don’t want there to be another day. My head hangs heavy with shame. I feel unworthy. I think everyone hates me. I hate me. I have a secret – I turn into a monster when I drink alcohol. There’s a person hiding inside me, a bad person who does terrible things, and I can’t stop her escaping when I’m drunk. And I can’t seem to stop getting drunk. Even though I try.

Days will pass and the fear will dissipate slightly but the self-hatred never leaves me. It festers deep inside and it keeps me in my place, somewhere dark where the ceiling is low and the walls are closing in; a place for people who are undeserving, a place where people never grow.

When I was younger, I thought people who were heavily into fitness were a bit vacuous, with brains in their biceps. But nowadays, I am so convinced that being fit and healthy physically means that we are mentally well too. It’s not just the act of pumping iron or running that boosts our emotional wellbeing: it’s engaging with people who don’t get out of their heads every day, who value their bodies; it’s the knowledge that you are strong and capable of conquering challenges; it’s living, day after day, without ever getting drunk; it’s the memories of that person you became when drunk fading into the distant recesses of the mind; it’s replacing fear with hope; it’s learning to like yourself again through the process of development and personal growth; it is the removal of toxins from the body.

Now that I prioritise my mental and physical wellness, I feel alive every day. I like myself. I maintain eye contact with other people when I’m speaking with them. I never think I am undeserving or less than anyone else.

At 41, I like myself. Genuinely, six years ago, I never would have believed I’d ever have been able to utter those words and mean them. But liking yourself is something we all deserve to feel. And it isn’t out of anyone’s reach. roc1

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Life’s What You Make It

Most things in life come down to a choice: the choice to focus on the positive or the negative; the choice to go after something you really want or to sit back and let someone else have a go; the choice to try out new experiences or to remain in your comfort zone; the choice to stay in a damaging place or to get out and start afresh.

It’s also possible to choose to see life as a series of choices, not a hand of cards that you are powerless to change. And if you do, there is nothing sitting beyond your reach. This may sound simplistic but I truly believe that it’s the only mind-set to have for living a fulfilling life.

Back in the dark days (when I drank most evenings and hated myself), I had no idea that life could be based on choices. Even down to the most basic of choices – deciding which thoughts I paid attention to and which I let go of – I was under the impression that I was a sitting duck: that whatever terrible episode may land on my doorstep, whichever bit of bad luck might descend upon my world, or however lonely and unloved I felt, I had no control over any of it whatsoever. It felt as though it was all just ‘my lot’.

There are many snippets of wisdom that we pick up during our time on earth but I think that grasping the idea of having choices and living life accordingly can make one of the biggest differences in how happy we are.

I decided that for me to be content and fulfilled, it was necessary for me to not drink alcohol. This was a choice. I could have followed the school of thought that says addiction can’t be beaten, that I am powerless over alcohol, that I had no choice. But I believed in the notion of choice, and I made that choice and stuck to it.

Yesterday I found myself suddenly overcome by negativity. Everything was wrong; I started to flounder in a pit of despair. But then I went for a walk in the nearby woods that are brimming with bright, autumnal colours and I took a few photos of the trees, noticed the beautiful blue sky, and breathed in the cold, fresh air, felt alive, watched my dog trotting amongst the fallen leaves and became aware of how even this mood that had engulfed me moments earlier was, in fact, a choice.

I started to think about all the things in my life that I am grateful for, all the beauty of the earth, the simple pleasures that make it all worthwhile. I stood in front of a tree for a while and observed the way in which the leaves, now littering the ground at the foot of the trunk, appeared as a reflection of the canopy above. It occurred to me that this could all be perceived as the dismal end of summer, a tree moving into a state of hibernation for the winter, or a stunning image of vibrancy, a captivating celebration of change; the beginning of a miraculous new season. I stared at the tree for a long time, and it became a symbol to me of how life is whatever we want to perceive it as.

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Earlier in the week, I had thrown a small Halloween party for my four-year-old and a few of her little friends. The carpet was covered in crisps, toys were strewn all over the lounge, and the kitchen looked like a bomb site. After everyone had left and I’d scrubbed my daughter’s face clean, wiping away every last trace of the ghoulish make-up she’d been wearing, my older daughter shouted down the stairs to me; “Can you help me with that English coursework now please?”

I had a choice in how I perceived all of this; to see the stress, the mess, the chaos, and to focus on my tiredness and how all I wanted to do was go and lie down on my bed. Or I could have chosen to see it as the lovely, hectic, full-on express train journey that is life, with all its demands and busyness.

I took the decision to view it as the latter.