Using the wisdom of Albus Dumbledore to reignite my excitement about Harry Potter…

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire really isn’t my favourite book in the Harry Potter series (although my least favourite is Chamber of Secrets) but there are so many quotes in it which are genuinely insightful and really helpful from a mental health perspective so I’m trying to channel some of them at the moment in an attempt to lift the horrible vacuum that’s currently sucking out my insides like an internal Dementor.

I really, really want to be excited about the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Saturday and I know that there is a part of me that is mega hyped about it even if I can’t feel or connect with it, and I really want to try to access it so I can really feel the emotion and absolute high of a new extension to the Potterverse- it’s been NINE YEARS since there was last an official ‘book’ extending the story (not including Beedle the Bard or Pottermore which are extensions of the Potterverse rather than the actual ‘story’) and I really should be excited about it!  It reminds me a bit of when the Half Blood Prince was released and I was in a similar vacuum of nothingness, and I hardly processed reading it.  I still finished it on the day it was released but I didn’t feel the same connection to it as I had done with the previous books and it took several re-reads to actually ‘feel’ the story even when Dumbledore died!

I really don’t want a repeat of that this time especially as it’s been nine years since Deathly Hallows and NINETEEN YEARS of HP obsession, and it’s changed my life so much in that time that I really, really want to experience the full excitement and emotional intensity (in a good way) that only comes with literally growing up along with characters that you connect to and learn from throughout your life.  I know I’m incredibly lucky to have been exactly the same age as Harry with every book release and not many people have had that experience (or the experience of waiting a year or two between each book release while trying to guess what’s going to happen- I still can’t accept that Snape was ‘good’ because I had ten years of hating him before DH came out), so I’m going to use my version of Harry Potter therapy to try to reignite those feelings again…

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This extract has always made me feel a bit weird and uncomfortable, and it took a few years to fully process it.  It’s from the end of Goblet of Fire when Harry’s just seen Cedric die and Voldemort return which is obviously an incredibly traumatic experience, and when I first read it I hated Dumbledore for making Harry recount it.  I’m still not fully comfortable with it but the reason I’m sharing it here is because of the quote “Numbing the pain for a while will make it worse when you actually feel it.”  It’s one of Dumbledore’s wisdoms that is so painfully true even though most people try not to admit it.  I’ve never experienced anything near as traumatic as Harry but when I was a teenager, I lost a lot of close friends through being ‘too intense’ (I’ve written about this a lot in other blog posts so won’t go into it now- see Friendships and mindfulness) and my way of dealing with that and the obsessive thoughts around it was to lose enough weight that my emotions ‘switched off’ completely.  It worked at the time but wasn’t sustainable and I had to eventually go into inpatient ED services which meant regaining weight, and the cycle repeated several times and with each weight regain, the emotions came back stronger and more intense.  I’m learning now that emotion regulation strategies are a much better and more effective way to manage and try to accept the emotions rather than ‘get rid’ of them but it’s bloody hard!!  (If you’re interested in DBT emotion regulation skills, have a look at TOO MUCH EMOTION which also links to Harry Potter).

I know that part of the vacuum-y nothingness feeling I’m experiencing at the moment is because I’m still trying to process the loss of a very close friendship eight months ago and I’m still getting very strong urges to contact her even though I can’t, and it feels like my insides have been sucked out which has left the space for the Dementor-like vacuum inside.  I can’t think or talk about it properly without crying and feeling like someone’s twisting a salted knife in my chest, and avoiding that is definitely adding to the nothingness.  I’m taking Dumbledore’s advice though and writing about it indirectly through blogging or creative writing, and hopefully that’ll make a difference…

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“Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.”  WOW.  I know Dumbledore’s wisdom is pretty well infinite but this is absolute truth.  When I first read GoF, I didn’t really appreciate just how true it is but fifteen years on, I’m starting to understand what Dumbledore meant.  I’ve been trying various approaches to ‘recovery’ (whatever that means) over the last 17ish years but it’s only now that I’m realising that you need to actually understand and ACCEPT what it is you’re experiencing in order to be able to recover.  As a teenager, I didn’t like how I was feeling and tried to ‘get rid’ of it in any way I could (usually food or weight-related) but because I didn’t think there was a real issue, it ended up making it worse until I was admitted as an inpatient.  After that, I started to accept that there might be a problem but I still didn’t really believe or understand it fully and the last ten years have been a mix of semi-recovery, relapsing, semi-recovery again, relapse again and kind of spiralling into feeling like there’s actually no point really and maybe I just need to accept that this is how I am.  But having recently re-read GoF, this quote really hit me and I’m trying to put it into practice…

For me, understanding is the hard part because what I’m experiencing at the moment (obsessiveness, feeling ’empty’ or vacuum’y, paranoia, intense neediness and anxiety etc) doesn’t fit into any ‘box’ or mental health category so it’s hard to actually understand what it actually IS.  Asperger’s covers part of it- the obsessiveness, need for routine, anxiety in social situations, meltdowns and feeling ‘weird’, but it doesn’t explain why I fixate on specific people, ‘need’ to contact people or they’ll forget I exist, can become very paranoid or the intense vacuum which really is like my insides have been sucked out.  But I’m still trying to apply Dumbledore’s wisdom and even though it doesn’t have a ‘label’ or ‘reason’, it’s still something I want to change and (this is the important part I’m trying to hang on to) it ISN’T PART OF WHO I ‘AM’.  That’s really important because up till recently, I thought I was just a horrible, weird, obsessive person and that’s why people didn’t want to be friends with me but weirdly I’ve got some really positive relationships at the moment which I really, really don’t want to mess up and they’ve lasted a few years now which is pretty unusual so I want to try to manage or change the obsessive intenseness so I don’t lose them.  So even though I don’t fully understand what causes it, I’ve got a pretty good understanding of my experience of it, and I think that’s enough to be able to accept it…

So, acceptance!  It’s kind of ironic that I’m coming from this perspective considering a psychologist I saw for a while last year used an ACT approach (accepting obsessive thoughts and urges without judging them) and I didn’t like it because I didn’t want to accept that the ‘horribleness’ was a part of me but I’m starting to realise now that you can accept that you’re experiencing something without actually accepting it as an intrinsic part of you, and that’s what I’m trying to focus on.  It’s the bitch in my head, not ‘me’, and that makes it a lot easier to accept and process.  And Dumbledore’s right- that does make it a lot easier to even contemplate recovery even if I don’t know fully HOW to yet.  But I think I’m in a much better place to be able to try now than I’ve ever been before because the understanding and acceptance really are essential for recovery to even be an option…  So thanks, Dumbledore- really needed that reminder!!

Anyway, back to the Cursed Child excitement!  Having thought a lot about understanding and acceptance, I’m starting to realise that the vacuum-y ‘nothingness’ is going to be there whatever happens but it doesn’t exclude the possibility of being actually excited or looking forward to the Cursed Child release even if it’s not full hyperness which maybe isn’t a feasible but that doesn’t matter.  I AM excited about it and I know I am, and even writing this blog post is helping to reconnect with that feeling even a little bit.  There’s so much to learn from Dumbledore and Harry, and it’s so important to remember that.  I’m practising my Patronus every day and that really does help to connect with a positive, ‘real’ part of you that sometimes doesn’t feel like it still exists but it does, it’s just clouded by other experiences sometimes.

Throughout Dumbledore’s life, he was affected by his feelings of guilt and loss about Ariana but he learned ways to manage that and to stay connected to his real ‘self’ even though sometimes it felt like it wasn’t possible and Harry learned from him that even though he had a part of Voldemort inside him, it didn’t make him VOLDEMORT and that wasn’t an intrinsic part of his personality.  I’m trying to see the bitch in my head as a sort of Horcrux that sometimes has access to my thoughts and feelings in a way that I don’t like but it’s not ‘me’ and I can learn to manage it and ‘close my mind’ through Occlumency (see Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, Part One: HARRY POTTER and Occlumency for more about ‘Harry Potter therapy’), and I’m trying really hard to keep practising it until I’ve found a way to get rid of the Horcrux for good!

What I’m relearning from Sweet Valley High…

OK, I’m going to start this post by saying that yes, I know Sweet Valley is not ‘real’ literature, it’s commercialised teenage rubbish that people have told me a ridiculous amount of times over the last twenty years that I shouldn’t be reading, but I’ve been obsessed with SVH since I was 9 and have actually learned a lot of life and social skills (really) from various characters in the series as well as having the ‘safety’ of an alternate fictional world which had characters I could relate to and ‘talk’ to (via Sims or writing) and this was really important to me as a teenager in a similar way to how I used Hogwarts pre-Voldemort as an escapist world.  Once Voldemort came back when I was in Year 9, Sweet Valley seemed a lot safer than Hogwarts and for years I carried a Sweet Valley book in my bag ALL THE TIME so I could read it whenever I wanted to.

Yes, Sweet Valley books aren’t written particularly well (overuse of adjectives, too many exclamation points, superficial writing style) but they’re accessible and easy to read which I think totally outweighs the actual style of the writing.  I’ve been able to read Sweet Valley books nearly my whole life, even when I’ve been feeling rubbish and had the concentration span of a hyperactive fly, and they don’t need a lot of focus or brain capacity to read.  They’re actually a lot more complex than most people realise thanks to being a series of close to 500 books in total, and you get to know the characters so well that you feel like they’re a part of your life.  And that means that, weirdly, you learn a lot from them and that changes throughout your life depending on who you can identify with at the time.  I might get struck down by the literature gods for saying this (especially since I did an English degree!) but I’ve actually learned more from Sweet Valley books and Harry Potter than from ANY book I’ve ever studied at school or uni and I think more people need to appreciate that there is more to ‘good’ books than heavy themes or symbolism.  Yes, that’s important and it’s good for analysing/studying, but sometimes learning real, applicable life and social skills and being able to relate to and feel safe with fictional characters is just as important and, for some people, can be even more beneficial.  I might be slightly biased considering I wrote my undergrad dissertation on Harry Potter, my MA and PhD on fairy tales and The Little Mermaid in particular, and one of my MA essays about Sweet Valley but I did the whole ‘literature’ stuff too and found it really interesting but nowhere near as useful for ‘real life’ than books I could really relate to and with complex, escapist worlds where I felt safe.  So that’s why I’m not embarrassed at all to say that I still read Sweet Valley books when I’m almost 30!  I’ll probably still be reading them at 50… :p

One of the things I really like about Sweet Valley books are that they’re set in the 80s- pre-internet and mobile phones which feels amazingly safe and there’s much less anxiety and paranoia because of it.  They write letters and call each other or arrange to meet at specific places and there’s none of the Facebook-based paranoia or bitchiness or problems with over-texting etc that there are now.  When I first started reading SVH, that was how the world worked but now technology’s taken over and there’s a lot more anxiety about than there was 15 years ago (for me, anyway).  I think one of the things I find ‘safe’ about Sweet Valley is that reading the books is like going back to the pre-internet world without the constant paranoia or anxiety of mobile phones and Facebook.  Although, ironically, the reason I can re-read the whole series now is because they’re available to download for free on Kindle Unlimited which is pretty incredible!!  When I was younger, I could only get the ones that hadn’t gone out of print yet from The Works or from charity shops, and I can still remember the MAGIC feeling of being able to order them from Amazon when that because feasible.  Now it’s even more accessible through Kindle which is genuinely amazing.  I was re-reading one of my exercise books from primary school where we had to write about magic inventions we wished existed and I wrote about a magic book which could become any book you wanted it to…I think it’s called a Kindle!!  BEST INVENTION EVER.

Anyway, back to Sweet Valley…  I’m about a third of the way through the SVH books at the moment and I’m just as hooked as I was when I was a teenager but in a different way.  The description of the twins still bugs me (sun-bleached hair, turquoise eyes, perfect size 6 figure) and it annoys me that all the characters seem to be “petite”, “slim” or “willowy” unless specifically mentioned as otherwise in which case it’s usually in a negative context but I think we just need to accept that this is ‘perfect world California’ and that’s not real anyway.  But weirdly, the perfectness of it is part of what makes it feel ‘safe’ and it really is a perfect escapist world.  When I was a lot younger, I used to want to paint the walls of my bedroom like Sweet Valley so I could feel like I was actually there and part of what I love about re-reading the books is that the setting is STILL THE SAME in my imagination.

The reason that’s weird is that it hasn’t changed visually at all since I was in primary school and it genuinely feels like revisiting an actual place from when I was younger.  I think it’s linked to brain processing- it’s something I really need to look into properly but I think that when you imagine something, your brain can’t tell the difference between reality and not-reality so you feel like you’re actually experiencing it and in general, this is stronger in children than adults and when you re-imagine something from when you were a child, it feels like an actual memory.  It’s definitely a topic I need to explore properly!  Would also be really interested to find out if it’s different in autistic brains than neurotypical- most people I know don’t have the same intense, almost physical recollections of memories/imagined events that I do or difficulty distinguishing imagined events and ‘real’ memories (I often think dream events have actually happened) but I don’t know if maybe I’ve just got an over-active imagination?!

Sweet Valley Middle School is visually almost exactly the same as my primary school and that’s still how I imagine it but the high school is a bit different- it’s partly based on the building my classroom was in in Years 7 and 8 and a lot of SVH classes (in my mind) take place there but it’s also mixed with the school field, lunchroom and library from primary school and a few extra corridors I seem to have made up in my mind but probably came from TV shows about high schools.  The front of the school is partly based on primary school but mixed with the front door from (I think) the school in The Princess Diaries so I have no idea how that happened!  It’s so weird revisiting it though because it really does feel like going back to an old school and I keep wanting to go to the Oracle office (which is the same as a classroom in my primary school) or go to find Olivia Davidson in the art room (which is the same as my secondary school).

The town is the same- the beach is like Sandbanks in Poole which was where we used to go on holiday when I was little, the shopping mall is the Royal Priors in Leamington except as is used to be before it was redone (complete with the peacock which anyone from near Leamington over the age of 25 will probably remember), Guido’s is basically Pizza Hut from Tower Park in Bournemouth, Casey’s is Henley Ice Cream shop…  They’re not exactly the same because some of the details from the books are mixed in with real-life places (the shopping mall is based on the Priors but the shops are from the books, the pizzas in Guido’s are bigger and more American than Pizza Hut, the beach has white sand and aqua water etc) but it’s amazing how your imagination basically works like a synthesiser using actual places and described details to make a whole new imagined world which is constant over time.  That’s what I love about re-reading book series or books you read over and over as a child- it’s still the same world.  I have a very similar experience reading Harry Potter but won’t go into that now, but it’s one of the reasons I don’t like seeing films of books because it’s never the same world and feels ‘wrong’.

The other awesome thing about Sweet Valley is the characters.  There are a few ‘main’ characters (Jessica and Elizabeth, Todd, Lila, Enid, Bruce) who appear in nearly every book but each book focusses on a particular, more minor character and something that’s happening in their life and because it’s a series, you get to know the characters so well by their appearances in other books that it’s nice to get a real look into the life of someone you’ve ‘met’ through other characters but don’t know a lot about.  Once you’ve read the whole series, you know most of the characters’ back stories and that’s nice too because when you re-read them, it gives you a whole new context.  My favourite character is Olivia Davidson who you don’t really get to know properly until quite late in the series (she’s just known as an arty, quirky sort-of geek) but in the special edition Mystery Date, she uses internet chatrooms as a way to meet people and you realise that she’s actually really shy and insecure.  I could relate to it a lot at the time because I used to use internet message boards as a ‘social life’ and it was nice to meet a character who had a similar experience.  It’s weird thinking about it now because SVH was originally set in the 80s and the internet didn’t exist then but because the writing went on into the 90s and early 00s, the internet was becoming more mainstream and a couple of the later books mention it although there are still no mobile phones or social media which I think would have ruined Sweet Valley for me.

Re-reading as an adult, you realise again how unrealistic and overly dramatic the books are (not even halfway through and we’ve had three kidnappings, two deaths, a plane crash, drugs, attempted rape, attempted suicide, depression and a ridiculous amount of teenage drama) but that’s what makes SVH so interesting and even though you know that no teenager would actually be able to experience all that and still have perfect mental health at the end of it, the way the books deal with each individual experience is surprisingly sensitive and well thought out.  It’s  bit unrealistic how quickly the characters appear to recover from whatever’s happened to them but the actual experience is pretty well described.  I remember as a teenager re-reading some of them over and over because I could relate to the characters strongly although at the time, I didn’t know why (Wrong Kind of Girl, The Perfect Girl, Too Much in Love and Alone in the Crowd are the ones that spring to mind straight away).  I’d be interested to read Sweet Valley book with an autistic character though- I know autism wasn’t particularly well understood in the 80s and Asperger’s didn’t even exist as a diagnosis but there are some characters who show strong autistic traits (Bill Chase, Randy Mason, Olivia Davidson among others) and it would be interesting to see them more accepted rather than ridiculed for being ‘different’.  But this is perfect world California 80s!

The other thing that really struck me when I started re-reading the books is how controversial they actually are in the topics they discuss.  Considering the books were aimed at a teenage/pre-teen audience (I was reading them from when I was 8 or 9), they deal with some pretty heavy topics and a lot of my first ‘exposures’ to things like mental health issues or drugs were actually via Sweet Valley books.  I know I’m not the only person who’s never even been tempted to try drugs as a result of Regina Morrow’s death after trying cocaine (see Regina Morrow is the reason I never tried cocaine, The death of Regina Morrow or just google ‘Regina Morrow’ and see what comes up) and that’s a pretty major positive effect on a lot of pre-teen lives.  The second link sums it up perfectly by saying “The death of Regina Morrow in Sweet Valley High #40 On the Edge influenced my life more than any other fictional event in the history of my entire reading career thus far. Twenty-five years after reading about her death, Regina is still the first person I think of when I hear about someone dying from a drug overdose.  ‘Oh, I think. He/She must not have read about Regina Morrow.’  Yes, my brain seems to believe that nobody would ever struggle with drug addiction if only they had read On the Edge when they were fifteen.”  I AGREE.  And anyone who says that Sweet Valley books are just ‘junk food’ for literature can f*ck off as far as I’m concerned.  The book series has genuinely changed people’s lives for the better and that’s not junk.

It’s not just drug use that’s addressed pretty directly- Jess’s boyfriend Christian is killed in a gang fight, her boyfriend Sam is killed in a drink driving accident (which was also the reason Elizabeth ended up in a coma after a motorcycle accident earlier in the series and both of these events have meant that I would never, ever get in a car with anyone who has had even a tiny amount of alcohol which has been my rule since I was a teenager and first read the books), John Pfeifer attempts to rape Lila Fowler and then sets fire to her house before being killed by one of his own bombs and so many other pretty controversial events.  Not just over-drama either- Tom McKay’s realisation of being gay was dealt with sensitively and would have been a pretty big deal in the 80s, and it’s amazing that Sweet Valley chose to write in a teenage, gay character.  The stigma is clearly shown as well as Tom’s feelings and that’s pretty impressive for ‘junk’ literature.

For me, the most intense storylines that really ‘got’ me as a teenager were the ones involving mental health issues.  They were never explicitly described as mental health issues in the books which was partly why they were so accessible I think, and it made it feel more ‘normal’ because characters you know and accept are experiencing similar issues.  The ones that really stand out are Robin Wilson’s struggles with weight and with eating disordered behaviour, Annie Whitman’s feelings of being cast out and attempted suicide and Lynne Henry’s experiences of depression.  Although they appear to be ‘cured’ unrealistically quickly, the actual experiences are really well described although brief, but trying to cram something like that into 137 pages is a pretty big ask!

Robin’s experiences are particularly interesting because her character has had so many ups and downs already by the time she developed an ED (weight problems and bullying, falling for George Warren then dealing with her feelings through food) that the plotline seemed to develop naturally from what we already know about her.  The book itself doesn’t go into too much detail (thankfully) about her actual ED thoughts although the line I remember clearly from reading it aged 12 was that her top tip for losing weight is “WATER” underlined several times and I went through a phase of drinking a bottle of water every lesson at school after reading that in case it worked (it didn’t, I just ended up needing the loo a lot!).  But what it does do is show a wider picture of Robin’s ED issues- not being able to eat in front of people, obsessive fixation on ‘safe’ foods, controlling behaviour and snappiness around other people, her jealousy around George, general obsessiveness, excessive exercise, constant exhaustion…  Even writing about it now, I can feel exactly how Robin felt and how I did as a teenager but without realising that’s why I related to the book so much.  Even though it’s very unlikely that Robin would have been that ill and not had to go into inpatient treatment, it’s still a well thought out book.

I could go on about mental health in Sweet Valley for ages and might save that for another blog post!  It’s also interesting that there are other, more complex mental health issues alluded to and shown in characters (Nancy the librarian’s sinister obsession with the 70s and trying to recreate it, John Pfeifer’s arsonist tendencies and sexual harassment/obsession, Margo’s delusional behaviour, Philip Denson the “messed up” ex-employee of Nicholas Morrow’s dad, John Marin’s attempts to kill the entire Wakefield family and probably a million others I’ve totally forgotten about.  It’s interesting how, as a ‘light’ teenage book series, it’s actually more psychologically complex than nearly any YA book out at the time and deals with such a massive range of issues.  Especially since in the 80s, a lot of mental health issues weren’t fully understood or known about which makes the depiction in Sweet Valley even more interesting and because it’s not given a ‘label’ or ‘diagnosis’, you’re given a real insight into that character’s thoughts and behaviours without judgement.  Even if the novels are ‘easy read’, 137 page long teenage books, they cover a lot of pretty intense topics without seeming forced or fake and that makes it more accessible and easy to relate to than if it were explicitly explained.

Will end the post now before I get totally carried away and write synopses of every book in the series!  Definitely more Sweet Valley posts to come… 🙂

Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, Part One: HARRY POTTER

This was up in the library at college this week and I thought it was AMAZING.  As any regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a massive Harry Potter fan and I think there is so much in the Harry Potter series which is relevant and useful for mental health awareness and management.  So that’s what I’m going to focus this blog post on, and I’m also going to write another post later on in the week about relationships which is the focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK.

The obvious link between the Harry Potter series and mental health issues is the one most people know about- Dementors being a sort of metaphor for depression.  This is something J.K. Rowling has said herself, and it’s probably the idea that most people reading Harry Potter can relate to because even people who haven’t experienced clinical depression can relate to feeling low, sad or numb.  When I first read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban aged 12, the Dementor on the train terrified me and I couldn’t listen to that part of the audiobook going to sleep because it really freaked me out and I would see Dementors behind the curtains in my bedroom or hovering by the ceiling.  Lupin describes them to Harry as “among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you. If it can, the Dementor will feed on you long enough to reduce you to something like itself- soulless and evil. You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.”  This is very close to how a lot of people experience depression- soulless, numb, drained, only able to think of negative thoughts and experiences…

At the time when I first read about Dementors, it scared me how close that was to how I sometimes felt and was weirdly comforting that Harry experienced something very similar when a lot of his classmates weren’t as affected by them and the idea of a Patronus (a charm to fight Dementors) fascinated me.  It’s only recently that I’ve started to actually use the Patronus idea after seeing a psychologist last year who suggested using imagery to respond to the bitch in my head, and I’m finding that the concept of a Patronus (focussing intensely on a positive feeling or memory and trying to channel that against negative thoughts and feelings) is actually kind of useful, especially when I link it to Occlumency which I’m going to talk about later on in this post.  I didn’t really know what depression was when I first read PoA but I could relate to it intensely and I think that the recognition of Dementors and Patronuses really helped prevent it from becoming too overwhelming when I was a teenager.

There are so many other concepts in Harry Potter that could be relevant to and potentially useful for mental health issues.  One of the main ones for me is Occlumency- the ability to close your mind to external penetration of thoughts or emotions.  I don’t hear voices or experience thought insertion or anything that someone with psychosis could experience on a daily basis but I do have a ‘bitch in my head’ who criticises me, shouts and makes me feel guilty all the time and I’ve found it really useful to think of it in a similar way to how Voldemort alters Harry’s thoughts and feelings.  I’ve been practising Occlumency- trying to clear my mind of thoughts and emotions before going to sleep at night, and it makes it easier to try not the let the bitch have full access to my thoughts and feelings during the day.  It’s really hard and often she gets in before I’ve even had time to try to prevent her, but focussing on Occlumency and really imagining my mind closing to her influence and stopping her from accessing emotions has started to be helpful in reducing how affected I feel by what she’s saying.  I think that, like with Voldemort, I can’t stop her from trying to access my mind but I can try to make my mind more resistant to penetration and that’s the whole idea of Occlumency.

As a teenager, I really identified with Luna Lovegood as a character.  When I first ‘met’ her in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, I was 16 and having a lot of social issues at school- I didn’t fit in with my year group, most of my friends were several years younger than me, I was a bit ‘weird’…  Discovering Luna was amazing because it was like meeting myself in a book, and I really identified with so much of her ‘weirdness’ and social awkwardness.  I also loved how she didn’t seem affected by what other people thought of her and really wanted to be more like that.  There are a few moments especially which really get to me.  When her things have been taken near the end of OotP and she says “I think I’ll just go down and have some pudding and wait for it all to turn up – it always does in the end”, it makes me feel really weird and guilty because she’s so used to people taking  her things that she’s not even upset about it any more.

The quote that really, really gets to me is when she says to Harry, “I enjoyed the meetings, too. It was like having friends.”  I can totally relate to that- one of the reasons I worked with kids so much as a teenager was because it made me feel like I had friends, and when we see Luna’s bedroom in Deathly Hallows the description made me cry the first time I read it: “Luna had decorated her bedroom ceiling with five beautifully painted faces: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny and Neville. They were not moving as the portraits at Hogwarts moved, but there was a certain magic about them all the same: Harry thought they breathed. What appeared to be fine golden chains wove around the pictures, linking them together, but after examining them for a minute or so, Harry realised that the chains were actually one word, repeated a thousand times in golden ink: friends … friends … friends …”  Friends are so important to Luna and people don’t realise that about her.  When Harry invites her to Slughorn’s party as his friend, her reaction of “Oh, no, I’d love to go with you as friends!  Nobody’s ever asked me to a party before, as a friend!” really shows how much it means to her.  She’s the nicest and kindest character in the whole series but people tend to miss that because she’s a bit ‘different’ and doesn’t try to fit in.  I’m sure a lot of pre-teens/teenagers have related to and learned from her as a character, growing up.

There’s a lot in Harry Potter about identity too, which I’m not going to go into too much detail about because it could be a dissertation in itself (and was, actually, during my undergrad year…).  There are different aspects of identity- self identity, perceived identity, social identity, physical identity and so many more, and they’re almost all referenced in some way in the Harry Potter series.  I think the most relevant aspects to mental health are the ideas of split identity- Voldemort’s Horcruxes and how it relates to Harry, and Harry’s self identity.  I don’t want to write too much about this because I’ve never experienced full dissociation or alters but I think that the idea of Voldemort splitting his soul into seven pieces is significant for someone experiencing dissociative identity disorder, especially in the context of part of that soul being a part of Harry.  The whole idea really scares me and I was terrified of reading DH at night for years, but the idea of a part of a person’s soul being in another person really is terrifying.  Voldemort’s influence in Harry’s thoughts could work as a metaphor for psychosis (thought insertion, thought disorder, hallucinations, delusional beliefs…) and the whole idea is so scary.  But I also think that ‘externalising’ psychoses as something like Voldemort trying to infiltrate thoughts and feelings could actually be helpful in trying to manage it.  Obviously I have no idea since I have never *touch wood* experienced psychosis but it’s definitely helped me to manage obsessive or paranoid thoughts, and reduce the influence from the bitch in my head.

Paranoia is also a prominent theme in the later Harry Potter books, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who found this weirdly reassuring given the parallel rise of paranoia in the world in general after 9/11 which also happened to be the year that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released and Voldemort finally returned.  Coincidence but (to me, aged 14 anyway) a really, really scary one.  Alastor Moody is the classic example in Harry Potter of someone who’s overly aware of attackers but most of the characters experience paranoia to some extent, particularly after the battle in the Department of Mysteries.  The part that’s more important to me though is Harry’s own paranoia about Dumbledore in OotP.  He’s worried about Dumbledore ignoring him and when he isn’t chosen as Prefect, that reinforces his growing paranoia that Dumbledore isn’t talking to him.  This fear grows throughout the book, and he fixates on it as he worries and gets more and more upset.  As someone who’s often fixated on the idea that someone isn’t talking to me, I could totally relate to this and it was so comforting to know that it wasn’t just me.  The Dumbledore says to Harry near the end of the book (about Kreacher) that “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike”, he could have been talking about his own relationship with Harry and it’s one of the lines in the series that I can identify with most.

The last idea I’m going to talk about here is obsessive thoughts and how they are experienced and managed in Harry Potter.  Voldemort is obsessed with living forever and achieving absolute power, and Harry experiences this with his fixation on the Department of Mysteries in OotP.  The way that Snape teaches Harry to deal with this is Occlumency, which I’ve already talked about and is equally relevant to obsessive thoughts.  Snape himself is still obsessed with Lily Potter decades on and the intense emotion and thoughts be feels in relation to her affect everything from how he interacts with Harry to his role in the Order of the Phoenix.  In Deathly Hallows, wearing the Horcrux necklace causes the wearer to become obsessed with thinking about things that make them feel vulnerable or angry, and it nearly leads to the end of Harry and Ron’s friendship before the Horcrux is finally destroyed.  In Philosopher’s Stone, Harry becomes obsessed with the Mirror of Erised before Dumbledore reminds him that “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live” which is another quote that I’ve found really, really useful to remember when I’m experiencing obsessive thoughts or fixations.

There is so much in Harry Potter which is relevant to mental health issues and I’m sure I’ll talk about it again in later posts!  If anyone has any suggestions or feedback, please email me at rainbowsandrecovery@gmail.com 🙂

Hope24: a 24 hour run in Newnham Park, Devon

Last weekend, I took part in an amazing ultrarunning event called Hope24 which was an event to raise money for a charity called Hope for Children, organised by an awesome man called Danny Slay.  WOW.  It was seriously the best organised and friendliest running event I’ve ever taken part in- the marshals were AMAZING, the route was clearly marked and easy to follow, the scenery was incredible, the tent area was accessible, everyone was super-friendly…  Such an awesome event!!  It was the most technically difficult event I’ve run so far- five miles laps with lots of steep hills (up and downhill, including one HORRIBLE incline that felt more like climbing than walk/running between miles 2 and 3!), uneven ground and the obvious darkness at night but it was so, so worth it for the scenery.  Bluebells, woodland, tall trees, morning mist, sunset and sunrise, stream, sheep and lambs, horses…it was like running in a magical fairyland!  AMAZING.

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Before the race started, I was really, really nervous and seriously thinking about pulling out.  I’ve not been feeling great recently after a friendship break up (which I’ve talked about a lot in other posts so won’t go into detail now) and not had a lot of motivation to run, so my ‘training’ had been sort of non-existent and I hadn’t run much more than a few miles in months and even that’s been a struggle so I knew that physically I wasn’t anywhere near as prepared as I should be.  But I’ve already pulled out of the London marathon this year (anxiety about crowds and being in London as well as ‘can’t-be-botheredness’) and I usually love ultras, and a friend mentioned a few weeks ago that running another one might help to get back into running again so I decided to go through with it based on the reasoning that it’s an ultra, not a marathon, and there’s no pressure to run any distance at all so you can stop after one lap if you want to.  So, having travelled to Devon and bought a RIDICULOUS amount of food (which brought back horrible memories of teenage binges and I nearly had a panic attack at the supermarket checkout), I didn’t really have much choice except to run…

I got there Saturday morning and set up my tent close to the start line so I wouldn’t lose it in the middle of the night (I was on my own with no support crew, so the likelihood of getting completely confused mid-ultra was pretty high) and walked around the campsite until the race briefing.  Right before an ultra is always the most horrible bit- the nerves kick in, you feel sick, there are SO MANY PEOPLE (although minimal compared to a road race), everyone seems to much fitter and more prepared than you…  The bitch in my head started up, reminding me that I’m lazy for not preparing, I’m way too fat to take part in any athletic events, people must think I’m delusional for even entering, I’m not good enough to be there and a million other things to make me feel even more nervous than I already did so I tried to ‘ground’ myself in the moment, counting the amount of people around, listening to voices, race announcements, cars and dogs, really focussing on smelling and tasting the coffee I was drinking for energy, squeezing marathon foot and my angel stones.  It helped a bit and the pre-race nerves started to overtake feeling guilty and paranoid, and I put on a Harry Potter audiobook to distract which really helped.  Then it was the (thankfully short) race briefing and, at midday, the race finally started.

The first couple of laps went surprisingly well- I felt OK physically, had my ‘mood stabiliser’ Spotify playlist on my ipod which has everything from Alanis Morissette and Disney to Pink Floyd and Green Day, the weather was nice and not too hot, and people spread out pretty quickly so there weren’t too many people running any given part of the course.  The course itself was awesome- there was a bit of a long hill at the start but the views from the top of the field were incredible and a beautiful run through woodland with bluebells (bluebells remind me of my Granda Sam who loved them, and I always try to channel his enthusiasm- he was one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever met, loved dancing and kids and was just generally awesome, which definitely helped).  Then there was a steep downhill through more trees towards a stream then up a mega steep hill, down briefly through more trees and up towards the field again, awesome path running through the field with sheep and horses then back down towards the campsite, out into the woods again with another, less steep uphill and along a flattish path through trees to a field leading back to the campsite again.  Wow!!  Some seriously incredible scenery and I found that I actually really enjoyed the first few laps which was pretty amazing because I haven’t enjoyed a run in nearly six months.  So I’m definitely going to keep hold of that…

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Laps four and five were pretty uneventful- I met some awesome people including a lovely man I ran/walked with for a while without actually finding out his name who gave me some really good advice about managing anxiety around crowds and several people whose life stories and jobs seem way more interesting than mine!  Then, after running nearly six hours, I took a short ‘break’ to have a coffee and some peanut butter (I’d been a bit rubbish at fuelling up to then and had basically survived on Haribo) before setting off again.  It was definitely getting harder by that point- my legs had started to seize up a bit and my right knee (which I’ve injured in the past) was starting to twinge so I slowed down and started to walk a lot more of the laps than I had done up to then.  I switched back to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and tried to relax into it but it was so hard to get motivated and every part of my body wanted to stop.  I’d told myself I wasn’t going to have a proper ‘break’ until 10 laps (50 miles) in, but at about 10pm I was ready to quit and getting serious urges to fall off the high paths which scared me a bit so I decided to have a break, get some porridge and try to figure out what to do.

It was dark by this point which really didn’t help and it was getting cold so I put on some extra layers and ate the porridge which helped a bit.  I was a bit scared about running in the dark but there were people crossing the start line at regular intervals so I kept reminding myself that there would be people all around the route.  I really, really wanted to just quit and go to sleep and the bitch in my head was yelling at me that I was simultaneously too rubbish to complete the run and that I was lazy for wanting to quit so my head was like a whirling mess of confusion, so I put Harry Potter back on and forced myself to go back out.  The next couple of laps were- I hate running in the dark anyway and was scared of falling so I kept slowing to a walk but just after midnight, the ultrarunning paranoia and hallucinations kicked in (which is pretty usual for me mid-ultra) and I was convinced I could see Death Eaters hiding behind trees and that someone was going to kill me.  I got really freaked out and ran more than I probably should have but every time someone came up behind me with a head torch which added extra shadows, it was so scary and a lot of the time I was sure I could see someone next to me although logically I knew it was just my shadow from the headtorch.  Not nice!  And looking back, I don’t think listening to the end of OotP was a good idea running through woods in the middle of the night which is creepy enough anyway so I put on some Disney instead and tried to channel that.

But then my ipod cut out so I had a couple of laps in complete silence which really wasn’t ideal.  I did some stargazing which was pretty awesome- I couldn’t find Orion which panicked me more than it should have (especially since, thinking about it rationally, it’s nearly summer and Orion is a winter constellation so it’s much more likely it’s not visible in May rather than I’ve really annoyed God somehow and that’s why I can’t see Orion which is definitely mid-ultra paranoia!), but I saw the Plough, Cassiopeia and the Pole Star which did help to ground me a bit.  I love looking at the stars because wherever you are, the stars are always constant and that feels safe.  Orion’s my favourite because he was the first constellation I ever learned to recognise and I used to talk to him when I was little, and I still feel safe whenever I can see him in the sky.  Running through an open field under a clear sky of stars with minimal light pollution is pretty incredible and I turned off my headtorch so I feel like I was running through space.

Once I’d got back into the trees, I started to feel bit creeped out again and without music or audiobooks to distract, I decided to try Occlumency again (sensory grounding really didn’t seem like the best idea given that it was the environment I was in that was freaking me out).  I’d been running close to 14 hours by this point and my brain was a bit fuzzy which weirdly helped with trying to detach from emotion and stop the bitch in my head from being able to access my thoughts and feelings.  It felt very surreal but genuinely did help, and I think that the concept of Legilimency/Occlumency (the idea of someone trying to penetrate and alter your thoughts and emotions) is really, really powerful and can be relevant to so many mental health issues.  I started to think of the bitch in my head as Voldemort trying to alter Harry’s thoughts and emotions, and that was really helpful because in the Potterverse, there’s an actual technique you can use to manage that AND IT SORT OF HELPS!  That was one of the main things I realised during the run and, for me, it’s so important.  Definitely going to keep up practising Occlumency and I’m going to explore the link between that and the bitch in my head a lot more because I found it really, really helpful.

I finally got back to the campsite around 3am and decided to take another break.  I was FREEZING by that point- the temperature had dropped massively thanks to the clear skies and there was condensation inside my tent, so I wrapped up in my sleeping bag and fleecy blanket and tried to stop shivering.  It didn’t work so I put on three more long-sleeved tops and two pairs of gloves (four of my fingers were white and so were my feet), and curled up as small as I could to try to get some body heat.  It was SO COLD; my whole body was shaking and my teeth were chattering audibly.  My chest hurt and I could feel my heart painfully with every beat, and it felt like my bones were made of ice.  I genuinely thought I was going to die of hypothermia (more mid-ultra overreaction!) and it was so, so hard to motivate myself to actually going back out there.  Even though I was freezing in the tent, it was even colder outside and I was scared I’d collapse or die but I forced myself (literally- it was like forcing every muscle to move individually) to get moving and back out on the course.  I wore five tops, a puffa jacket and both pairs of gloves, and told myself I could walk the next lap because I felt too cold to move.  So, so hard to get going again but probably the best idea- staying in the tent would have been dangerous cold-wise, and moving did help to get my circulation moving at least a little bit.

Thankfully around 5am, it was getting light enough not to need a headtorch and that really, really helped.  There’s something about running through the night and the sun coming up which makes you feel surreal and connected with the world around you in a way I’ve never experienced any other time, and suddenly you realise that you’ve done the hardest part of the run and all that’s left is to just finish.  My ipod and phone were both dead by this point which was frustrating because I wanted to take photos of the sunrise, and the AMAZING marshall at the first hill (the awesome guy with the pink/purple beard called Kevin) was chatting to me when I passed and offered to charge my phone for me so I could take photos- SO NICE of him!  He was seriously awesome throughout the whole event and deserves a million thank yous for how enthusiastic, nice and just generally amazing he was.  I walked most of that lap, partly because I was still freezing and shivering and partly because I was totally bloody knackered by then, and I met an amazing woman called Vicky who I walked a lot of that lap with.  She was so nice and friendly, and was the lead woman at that point which was pretty amazing!  Was so nice to meet and chat to her, and really helped my motivation to not just quit after 50ish miles.

After that lap, I started running a bit again and picked up my now-charged phone from Kevin, and took lots of photos of the sunrise which was pretty incredible.  The light was amazing, it was starting to warm up and I was feeling a lot more real and alive than I had done over the previous 6-8 hours, and I started to realise that I might actually make it to midday without collapsing or quitting which felt almost achievable.  I put Harry Potter back on and thankfully the battle at the Ministry was almost over and I had the really emotional scene between Harry and Dumbledore at the end to listen to for the next couple of laps.  It’s a pretty emotional bit anyway but I was crying by the end of the book, partly because of Harry’s guilt and loss, partly from Dumbledore’s amazing strength given his own family history which he didn’t tell Harry and his real affection for Harry himself, and partly because the lambs had woken up and were leaping around in the sunlight, and the horrible realisation of why I’m vegetarian suddenly hit me in an intense wave of guilt.  Ultrarunning over-emotion!

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At about 9am, I took a quick break to have some more coffee and porridge before starting up again.  I was getting really tired and sore by this point, and the hill from hell really felt like it was killing my legs every time I attempted it so I took it really slowly and tried to enjoy the course.  I was chatting to a few more amazing people over the next couple of hours, some of whom had managed a mind-blowing amount of miles, and there was another amazing marshall near the bottom of the bluebell trail who put on rock music and was awesome and encouraging.  All the marshals and organisers were so nice!!  Made such a massive difference to the run.

The last couple of laps were HARD.  The sun had come up properly and it was getting hot which made it really hard to run, especially when all your muscles are so sore already.  I realised that I’d already covered 70 miles which was way more than I thought I would so slowed right down, took lots of photos and tried to enjoy the last lap.  It was painful, especially the horrible hill from hell, but worth it to finish on 78 miles which is weirdly only two miles less than the 24 hour run I took part in last year and which was much, much easier terrain.  Crossing the finish line at just gone 12.30pm was pretty amazing and everyone was so enthusiastic and encouraging even though most people had been awake and/or running for over a full day and night by then.  WOW.  Seriously amazing atmosphere!!

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I was pretty zoned out afterwards and didn’t really process it properly until later, but WOW.  It was an incredible event and thank you so much to everyone who organised and helped with it- you are all amazing people!!!  I found out afterwards that I’d somehow come 6th out of 76 female solo runners and I seriously have no idea how that happened but felt amazing, especially considering how hard I found the run and how unprepared I was.  But I learned so, so much over the course of the 24 hours which I’ve been trying to distil into some sort of coherent thoughts…

  1. The human body is amazing.  Seriously, it’s incredible what your body is capable of.  I don’t have the healthiest diet or lifestyle in any way whatsoever and I definitely haven’t looked after my body as much as I should have in the past, but it’s still capable of running 78 miles of hills without *touch wood* any major consequences.  Yes, I’m sore and tired and my ankle’s bruised and swollen, but that’s sort of expected after an ultra.  It’s AMAZING how resilient and strong your body actually is.
  2. Following on from #1, in some ways I’m glad my body isn’t smaller any more.  I don’t really know how to phrase this and what I just wrote isn’t technically true (I would LOVE to be a much smaller size but I know it’s not healthy or practical), but what I’m trying to say is that there are aspects of being a higher weight that mean that I can do things that wouldn’t be possible at a lower weight and ultrarunning is definitely one of them.  When I was underweight, I couldn’t run more than a few minutes at a time without going really dizzy or passing out and now I can run 24 hours.  That’s a really big achievement for me and definitely something I want to keep reminding myself of.
  3. People are incredible.  Having met some seriously amazing people during Hope24, runners, marshals and supporters, I know that there are so many incredible, encouraging and NICE people in the world and you just need to talk to people to find them.  And you can learn so much from people just by listening to them.
  4. The bitch in my head is bloody stubborn but sometimes she can be useful.  This was the first ultra she hasn’t shut up during and that was really hard at first, especially when she was yelling totally contradictory things about being too rubbish to carry on but that I’d be selfish or lazy to give up.  In the end, I learned to filter what she was saying without even realising it and used her skewed encouragement to keep going without getting affected by what she was actually saying.  That was HARD and it only really happened because I was practising Occlumency and thinking of her as Voldemort but it was probably the main reason I didn’t quit during the night.  And again that’s a skill I’m going to try to keep practising and hopefully it’ll work again even if it’s not mid-ultra…
  5. God is all around even if it doesn’t feel like it.  One of the things I love most about ultrarunning is the feeling of connecting with God, in the sunlight and stars, through  the trees and wildlife, and in the stillness of woodland air.  It didn’t happen as much as it usually does this time but there were a few moments when I could genuinely feel that I was breathing God in and that I was connected with Them through photosynthesis and respiration.  I have a slightly spiritual concept of God in that I believe that They are in everything as energy (energy can’t be created or destroyed, energy pre-existed the Big Bang, energy is a life force) and whether that’s actually divine or just a created concept, I can FEEL it and that’s what matters.  To quote Dumbledore (who is also an aspect of God to me), “Of course this is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” and that’s how I see my concept of God- whether it’s objectively real or not, it’s real to me and I can feel it and connect to it which helps me to feel safe, and that’s what’s important for me.
  6. Food is essential and when you’ve been running long enough, you NEED it whatever the bitch in your head says.  It’s amazing how good even food you’d never usually eat tastes 14 hours into a run- I was eating Haribo and peanut butter (together) at 2am which felt like the most amazing thing I’d ever tasted and the tuna salad I had after I finished was like magic angel food.  There were several times during the run where I felt dizzy, dissociated and nauseous and food was the last thing I wanted but after forcing myself to eat a banana or a cereal bar, it was like someone had fed me a reviving potion and suddenly I felt real again.  It’s like magic.
  7. You are capable of so much more than you think.  I didn’t think I’d even manage two laps let alone fifteen, and there is no way I thought I would have run 78 miles.  It still doesn’t seem possible.  But if you break it down and think of one lap at a time, focus on the present moment and don’t think about possible challenges or difficulties- just deal with whatever’s happening at the time, you’ll achieve so much without even realising it.
  8. Ultrarunning is a mental sport.  I don’t mean that in the (annoying) way a lot of people have said to me over the last couple of days (“are you mental?”, “you’re crazy”, “that’s insane” etc) which really, really gets to me because I don’t like the ‘normal v insane’ definitions because everyone’s different and mental health is a spectrum of illness and wellness anyway; I mean mental as in it’s more to do with your thinking and attitude than your physical strength.  Obviously you need to be relatively fit and healthy to run long distances but post-marathon, it’s more about attitude than fitness.  Your physical training stops around 30ish miles for most people and more than that’s about endurance and mental attitude.  If you can run 30 miles, you can run 100.  ANYTHING is possible.  I hadn’t run more than six miles at a time in about six months but I still managed to complete 24 hours relatively comfortably.
  9. Use challenges to your advantage.  I mean both physical and mental by this- use hills as a chance to walk for a bit and let your legs recover, and use negative thoughts or derogatory voices as motivation.  The second part is definitely easier mid-ultra when your brain’s fuzzy anyway and nothing really makes sense, but it’s a really useful skill I’m going to try to get my head around.  It fits with my attempts to make friends with the bitch in my head and it’s definitely something I need to keep working on…
  10. Connect with nature/higher power.  Yes, this is a DBT skill (which amazingly I’ve managed to avoid mentioning so far in this post!) and it’s a really, really useful one.  The idea behind it in DBT is that by connecting with something greater than yourself, it can promote a feeling of safety or calm and it’s a bit of a controversial skill because a lot of people don’t like the idea of God/religion.  It doesn’t have to be a deity though and for me, one of the most effective forms is looking at the stars.  I find it really hard to put into words but it really did help during the nighttime part of the ultra when I turned my headtorch off any really connected with the stars.  A few years ago, I wrote it as part of a story and I’ll finish with because I think I’ve probably bored anyone who’s read the whole post with enough…

I love the stars.  There’s something amazing about looking at an endless expanse of everything and nothing, something impossible to fully comprehend.  It alters your perspective somehow, fear mixed with awe in equal amounts and suddenly everything fits.  It’s the rush of infinity, the realization of your insignificance and contingence in the shifting universe around you.  A sense of vertigo in nature as the sky stretches endlessly into the vacuum of space and the vast ocean depths echo below.  It’s strange how sometimes the more alone you are, the less lonely you feel.  Floating in the ocean with the stars for company, there’s a sense of cosmic belonging, a sort of oneness.

Moments that make you feel alive

Last week, a friend was describing a moment that had just happened that she’ll remember for the rest of her life- one of those magic moments where it’s intense and amazing for any particular reason.  We were talking about that type of moment afterwards and at the time, I couldn’t remember any time I’d felt like that but I know I must have done.  I’m still in a bit of a negative, feeling rubbish phase at the moment (although I’m trying REALLY hard to change that) and it’s hard to think of anything positive at all most of the time but I had an amazing weekend last week where, for the first time in ages, I actually felt ‘real’ and connected, and it was FUN which is something I haven’t felt in months.  So I’ve tried to harness that positive energy and spent the week trying to think of ten moments that made me feel good, alive or connected.  It was really hard and I literally had to go through my life systematically to find them but I think I’ve got a pretty good list and surprisingly it was a really positive experience to think of them and try to recall the feelings from the time.  It’s definitely an exercise I’d recommend to anyone who’s feeling a bit rubbish- really helps to put things into perspective.  SO, in an attempt at counting down…

10) Last weekend.  This should probably be higher in the list because of the context (it was such as massive shift in feeling from the slightly detached rubbishness I’ve felt since last December) but I’m putting it here since it was the first one I remembered.  I spent the weekend with my absolute favourite people in the world and we made a blanket fort, watched my two 0f my favourite Disney films (Treasure Planet and Tarzan), went to the park and took selfies on the swings, played on the trampoline, played board games and just generally hung out which was amazing in so many ways- I felt ‘real’ and like I was actually ‘there’ instead of just existing, and the amount of love I have for those people is incredible.  Had a bit of a ‘comedown’ crash near the start of the week but have tried to focus on the positives and channel that which has been really, really useful in response to the bitch in my head- I think I’m finally managing to make a Patronus!!  Which I’ll talk about in another, Harry Potter-focussed post 🙂

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9) Running through Hampstead Heath.  Last year, I lived in London and was lucky enough to live near Hampstead Heath, which is a massive park on the top of a hill in north London.  The views there are incredible- there are spots where you can see the City and a lot of it is woodland paths.  I used to run there early mornings to see the sunrise over London which was incredible in itself but my favourite part was getting lost in the trees and following random paths which would occasionally lead to something like a magical fairy dell.  The particular moment I’m thinking of was a morning last February when I was running just as the sun was coming up and the trees had that magic stillness of not-quite-daytime when there’s no-one about.  It was really cold and there was frost on the ground, and I was pretending I was in Narnia when suddenly snowflakes started to fall all around.  It was genuinely magical- I felt like Lucy entering Narnia for the first time and there was no-one else on the planet, and I was dancing and jumping through the snowflakes feeling like I could connect with God and I was part of the world around me.  It was an incredible, magic feeling and I don’t think I’ll ever be able reconnect with the world around me in the same way again.  Just amazing.

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8) Seeing Roger Waters perform The Wall live.  This was just…WOW!  I am a massive Pink Floyd fan and so is my dad, and since I was a teenager I’ve really connected to their lyrics and the atmosphere of their songs.  I was constantly jealous that my dad saw them in concert in the 70s and that he met Nick Mason randomly at a car event (my dad’s obsessed with cars and asked Nick Mason for a ride in his Ferrari 250 GTO!!  And it broke down so he was stuck in the car with him for half an hour- so jealous!!) and I really wished that Pink Floyd would reform and do more gigs.  So when Roger Waters announced that he was doing The Wall tour aged 69-70, I was mega, mega excited!!

I went to see him in Wembley stadium with a close friend from uni.  I was genuinely terrified about going- I get panicky in crowds and have mild paranoia about terrorism, and 120 000 people in a massive London stadium REALLY isn’t part of my comfort zone- but I really, really couldn’t miss the chance to see Roger Waters so I took some diazepam and went.  WOW.  I am so glad I did!!  The atmosphere was INCREDIBLE- imagine the most intense concert you’ve ever been to times ten, mixed with immersive pyrotechnics and special effects.  It’s so hard to put into words but it was INTENSE, incredible and genuinely life changing.  There was everything from planes on zip wires over your head, red pyrotechnics and smoke, strobe lights, a giant wall which was knocked down…

The whole thing was like a religious experience with over 100 thousand people singing along to the lyrics with more passion than Scotland fans in Euro 2000, Roger’s message was passionate and scary, it was unpredictable and terrifying.  Near the end, he took out a machine gun and simulated firing it over the crowd- at that point, I was convinced he was going to kill everyone and was close to panic attack stage because it really was that intense.  Roger Waters’ presence is scary enough in itself: an intense, commanding figure in a full length black leather coat and shades, dominating the stage.  Seriously amazing.  I came out the stadium feeling dissociated and zoned out, not because of the crowd but because of the intensity of the concert and how deeply it had affected me.  INCREDIBLE.

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Roger Waters The Wall Live at the Time Warner Cable Arena on July 10, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina – © 2012 David Oppenheimer – Performance Impressions (photo taken from http://www.performanceimpressions.com)

7) The release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  I know this might sound superficial and trivial to include in this list but it’s one of the moments in my life that I can remember so vividly that I have to include it.  I’m a mega Harry Potter fan and have been since 1997 when the first book was released.  I genuinely grew up with Harry and was the same age as him when all the books came out- I did my GCSEs when he did his OWLs, was emotionally on a level with the characters throughout the series and learned more from Dumbledore and McGonagall than I did from most of my real life teachers.  I used to use Hogwarts (pre-GoF) as an escapist world growing up and I’ve read all the books (apart from the first one) on the day they were released.

The build up to DH was massively intense for so many reasons.  Firstly the obvious- waiting two years to find out whose side Snape was really on and if Dumbledore was really gone which was hard in itself.  Then there was a more personal reason- right after the sixth book was released in 2005, I was admitted to a psych hospital as an inpatient and was there pretty much up until the release of DH in 2007.  This was pre-smart phones and Facebook etc and you weren’t allowed any internet access anyway or mobile phones so there wasn’t really much to do apart from reading or arty stuff.  I read the fifth and sixth books over and over during that time, partly because they were so long and intense that I could get completely absorbed in them and forget where I was and partly because of Luna Lovegood and how much I could relate to her character.  There’s so much in both of those books that I could relate to, and still do.

So when the seventh book was released, I was so excited and nervous and it was such a weird experience.  I’d had ten years where HP had been such a massive part of my life and now it was almost over, and I didn’t want it to end.  Thankfully J.K. Rowling seemed to have pre-empted that in the King’s Cross scene near the end and I am so, so grateful to her for that.  I don’t want to go into too much detail for anyone who hasn’t read it but it’s perfect in every possible way.  If anyone’s interested and doesn’t mind spoilers, here’s a link to the FB post I wrote right before I saw the last film: Thoughts on Harry Potter.  But, to end with my favourite ever Dumbledore quote, “Of course this is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”  For me, Harry Potter will continue to grow and influence me throughout my life and I love that.

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6) New Year’s Eve 2011.  I went to York to stay with my best friend and we watched Disney films, did crafty stuff and made an incredible collage which is still on my bedroom wall.  Not a massive amount to say except that I absolutely love any time I get to spend with my best friend who is one of the most amazing, incredible, talented and accepting people I have ever met.  Best New Year’s Eve ever!!

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5) The most amazing card I’ve ever been given.  From when I was a teenager, I volunteered in primary schools and in one school in particular for nearly ten years.  There were two classes especially that I worked with a lot, and I also worked in the after school club so I got to know some of the children really well.  Obviously working with kids you’re not meant to have favourites but you end up getting particularly close to certain children, usually ones who attach themselves to you for no particular reason.  There was a child in one of the classes I worked in who also went to the after school club every day and he ‘latched on’ to me a bit, wanting me to play with him every day, sitting on my lap, holding my hand and doing all the sweet things kids do.  He was very shy but one of the nicest children I’ve ever met, and when I stopped working in that school, he got quite upset.  He used to make me things and I’ve still got a ‘flower’ he made me out of paper to wear in my ponytail- I laminated it and wore it every day for luck, and now I carry it around in my purse.  The year after I stopped working at that school, his class had a lesson making cards for people they look up to and he made one for me, saying I was his best friend and listing why.  It’s genuinely the nicest thing anyone has ever given me and it’s still on my bedroom wall four years later ❤

4) The only time I have ever skipped school.  This is a weird memory- the type that you’re not quite sure if you’ve made it up or not, but it’s so vivid and detailed that I’m pretty certain it actually happened.  It must have been when I was about 17 and doing A levels (it involved driving), and I’d had a really rubbish day for some reason which I can’t remember now.  It was a Friday lunchtime and I was feeling really horrible, and my then best friend came up with the awesome idea of going to the cinema to see the (then) new film with Audrey Tautou called A Very Long Engagement.  We justified it by the fact that it was in French and it was French speaking we’d be missing (or I would anyway, I don’t think she had any lessons that afternoon) and it was AUDREY TAUTOU who we both had a bit of a crush on.  So we went to see it and I’m sure it must have been a good film, but I genuinely can’t remember anything about it!

What I do remember is that we went to get a pizza afterwards and this is the part that sticks most in my head.  I had a barbecued chicken pizza without chicken or cheese but with added pineapple and mushrooms (I’m vegetarian and dairy intolerant), and it was the first time I’d actually eaten pizza in years.  It was AMAZING and the magic part was that, sitting with my then best friend who I still couldn’t quite believe wanted to be friends with me and eating pizza during school time, NOTHING MATTERED and I could eat the pizza without mega anxiety, panic or urges to get rid of it.  Then I felt like I was flying and I could do ANYTHING so we shared a dessert which was waffles and maple syrup (she had ice cream on her bit) and it was the most amazing thing I had ever eaten.  It was a really big deal at the time because I’d had an eating disorder for about four years by then but wasn’t really aware of it (it wasn’t diagnosed till I was 18 and an inpatient and even then it took another four years to actually accept or believe it) and most of my teenage years were fixated on avoiding food or throwing it up without anyone noticing, so being able to sit in a restaurant and eat ‘normal’ food without running to the toilets to throw it up straight afterwards was a mega big deal!  The only time I’ve felt even close to that since then is when I’m running an ultramarathon but one of my mega aims is to feel like that again someday without having to run for ten hours first…

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3) Sleeping in a tent last summer.  Last year, I camped in the garden with some kids I babysit and it was the most awesome, amazing night I’ve had in a long time.  It was FREEZING and their mum had made the sleeping compartments (it was a massive tent!) into mini nests with mats, blankets, sleeping bags and more blankets, and it was the most cosy and comfortable place I think I’ve ever slept!  I had three hot water bottles and two sleeping bags as well as the blankets because I’m a lightweight who gets cold really easily, and the kids had lots of blankets around their sleeping bags.  We played Fluxx (an awesome card game) and messed around with teddies, and it was such an amazing experience- their mum had hung lights up in the centre part of the tent and it was like a magical den!  The kids loved it, I loved it and I love hanging out with the kids anyway so it was like a magical surreal experience and so much fun.  Definitely worth spending most of the night feeling like I’d got hypothermia because even though I had a ridiculous amount of warm-making stuff, I still managed to feel freezing!!  Woke up with purple hands and white feet but was one of the most awesome experiences ever 😀

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2) An amazing moment babysitting.  To be honest, I am lucky enough to have LOTS of amazing moments babysitting and I genuinely love some of the kids, but one moment in particular sticks in my head.  It was from last year and I was sitting on the sofa with a boy I babysit (and have known since he was tiny) cuddling into me and we were watching Brother Bear.  I’d had a really rubbish day because earlier that morning, my then best friend of 20 years had just told me she didn’t want to keep in touch any more and that really, really hurt more than almost anything else I’d ever experienced and I was feeling zoned out and horrible so one of the kids I babysit suggested watching Disney.  Brother Bear happens to be one of my absolute favourite films but there’s one part of it (the song near the end- No Way Out) that I find really, really hard to watch and it makes me cry every time I see it, even when I’m not already upset.  It reminds me a lot of how I was feeling when the film first came out in 2003 and I was trapped in ED thoughts and behaviours that I didn’t understand, and the lyrics could actually have been written to describe how I felt.  So I ended up crying while we were watching it, partly from the song and partly because of losing my friend, and weirdly it kind of helped to let some of the emotion out.

When the film finished, we were watching the credits and the boy I was babysitting said that he loved me.  I know kids say stuff like that all the time and it’s not a big deal but it was to me- I can count on one hand the people I’ve said ‘I love you’ to (not including pets) and I genuinely love the kids more than anyone else in my life- I’ve known them forever and they accept me without judging me, and their mum is incredible.  They’re like my ‘pseudo-family’ (that’s how I think of them anyway) and I love them, and I am so lucky to have them in my life and that they let me be a part of theirs.  At that moment, my heart was literally stinging with emotion which is REALLY not like me and I realised again how lucky I am.  Much as it still hurts really intensely that my then best friend doesn’t want to be friends with me any more, I need to keep reminding myself that there are other people in my life who are genuinely amazing and accepting, and I need to appreciate that…

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1) Running my first marathon.  This was amazing for so many different reasons!  Partly because I genuinely didn’t think I’d ever be able to run a marathon and I’d only been running properly about a year and a half by that point, and even then I was averaging six miles per run.  I got into distance running really randomly in 2011- I was doing an MA in Creative Writing and found it hard to write poems.  My poetry tutor, who is also a distance runner although I didn’t know that then, lent me Haruki Murakami’s ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ because it linked running and writing, and I started to run a bit more to match what Murakami was doing in the hope that it would help write poetry.  Weirdly, it did and even after the poetry module was over, I carried on running every day and until a few months ago, I still was and am trying to get back into it after a bit of an unmotivated phase.  I think it helped that I really, really look up to my tutor- she’s an amazing poet, runs marathons and is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and she was so encouraging about my running that I actually felt like a ‘real’ runner instead of someone just pretending or messing about.

After a few months of daily running, I signed up for my first half marathon and amazingly managed to complete it.  Then my tutor (who I’m still in touch with) suggested running a marathon which I really didn’t think would be possible but signed up and tried to start increasing my runs.  Even right up until the day of the marathon, I didn’t think I could do it but my tutor was so encouraging and positive about it that I decided to give it a go.  She even offered to come and watch which was so, so nice of her and made the whole thing a million times less scary.  Right before the marathon, she lent me a rubber foot (marathon foot) to run the marathon with who’s been in her pocket during her marathons and is charged with good karma, and that seriously helped probably more than anything else during the race which was an AMAZING experience but really hard because it was so bloody hot!!  Then after the race, she said I could keep marathon foot as long as I kept him safe and he’s been my good luck charm ever since.  That was genuinely the best day of my life and not just because of the endorphins- ten years ago, I would NEVER have believed I’d run a marathon or even 5K and now I run ultras!  Distance running has changed and improved my life in so many ways, and I am so, so glad I ran that first marathon.  Having run nine more since then as well as at least nine ultras (losing count!!), I can genuinely say that starting distance running was the best decision of my life and I learn so much from every running event.  And marathon foot is still karma-charged and awesome!! 😀

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SO, having written those, I’m now feeling weirdly positive and grateful for all the amazing moments and especially people in my life.  THANK YOU to everyone who’s been a part of any of the moments on this list and to all the other awesome people in my life- I didn’t mention any family events but all of my cousins are amazing people who deserve a whole post to themselves, and I have some incredible and accepting friends who it would be too hard to choose just one moment with.  One thing I have realised and am going to try to internalise is that the people involved in moments on this list (apart from my ex-best friend) are all people I’ve met as an adult and now they’re probably the most important and influential people in my life.  I need to keep reminding myself of this because when I turned 18, I felt like my life was over and I’d never survive as an adult but actually most of the most significant and amazing things that have happened to me have been as an adult, and I think that’s really, really important to remember.