On being an introvert

(There’s a big blog post coming up at some point with all the main catch up stuff, but just now I need to write about what’s on my mind).

What people don’t understand about me, ever, is that I’m an introvert. I’m happiest in very small groups, one-on-one or solo situations, and I have pretty low social limits.

The most accurate way to describe it is this: it’s like I have a social meter, and once it’s full, I need to be on my own. I’m fairly sure this is true for everyone to some degree, but for me it’s very pronounced. For the vast majority of the time, I’m a talkative, interested, socially relaxed kind of person. I’m the person making funny comments and asking completely inappropriate questions, usually because I’m bored or because I find people fascinating. I require constant entertainment, and if there’s none available, I will be it. That’s all genuine. But when it gets too much – and it may be in minutes if I’m finding the situation stressful, or months if things are relatively peaceful – I want to escape.

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A few months ago I moved from being within a busy (but fairly quiet) team to being more on my own. I was also more physically on my own because of not being part of a team or having people sitting near me. For about thirty seconds it was pure bliss. Then the interruptions started happening. ‘Oh, are you okay on your own?’ ‘How come you’re sitting here now?’ and so on and so forth. In some ways it was really nice; I didn’t get people stopping by my desk very often before. But then it got to the stage where I was getting interrupted by people coming to chat to me nearly constantly. My interruptions would get interrupted, and this was just real life, never mind the Facebook messages, the Skype messages, the Google+ messages, the tweets to two accounts, the Facebook comments and posts and emails and everything else, both from coworkers (friends) and customers. So I started working later hours in an attempt to get stuff done.

After the company handyman started a conversation with me about the electrics across the three buildings at 8pm one night, a twenty minute monologue which concluded with him saying, ‘Why are you working late? I like working late though, because there are no interruptions’, I just gave up. Politely telling people I just needed to get on with some stuff got me nowhere, because they still needed to tell me about their latest game, or their haircut, or their argument with their boyfriend, or their awesome bit of code, or what’s for lunch, or find out what I’ve been up to. I tried being polite. And then I tried putting earphones in. And then I tried actively glaring at people (they cheerfully replied, ‘I’ll come and harrass you in a few minutes, then!’).

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And I’m not going to lie, I swung between feeling horrendously guilty, slightly stressed, and totally joyful for a while, depending on what else was happening in my world. (In fact, the head developer got a LOT of me raging about all my problems, and to give him credit, he took it well and came back for more several times).

I love feeling wanted, and I love people feeling the needs to come and tell me stuff, but at the same time, there’s a limit. I can count on one hand the number of people here who have a good work-life balance, and my specific ‘balance’ is made even more challenging by the fact that a lot of my personal stuff and work stuff crossover and have minimal boundaries. Sometimes there’s just too much noise, and it’s nearly impossible for me to explain that yes, I know you need me to give feedback on the work you’ve just done, but try telling that to the other six people who all insist on communicating with me omgrightthissecond in addition to me trying to do about three written tasks simultaneously…

…aaand deep breath.

Even after five years of this, in my head I’m still ‘geek who likes to sit in front of a computer or behind a camera’, but that clashes with how other people see me. Being social is always a conscious effort. I’m always confused when people expect me to be mean or an airhead because they assume I was the ‘popular’ girl at school. It couldn’t be further from the truth. I have just the same geekiness, insecurities and worries that they do – if not more – just in a different chassis ;) If I have a talent for anything, it’s appreciating people exactly how they are, and naturally discovering something to like in everyone.

For the large part, things have calmed down a bit now. This is partly due to the fact that I now have a desk buddy, which generally stops people physically coming to talk to me; as I sit in the corner, he’s effectively a barrier ;) I’ve also stepped back from social media quite a bit, mostly due to the fact that I’m currently obsessed with Fantasy Life and interior decorating…an unlikely combination, but a very satisfying one (I’m sure part of the reason for that is that it’s almost exclusively people-free).

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I’m also conscious that it’s rapidly becoming winter, which is the worst and most dangerous time of year for me. I’m less fragile than I usually am at this time of year, but I’m also potentially more unpredictable than usual (more on that later), and it doesn’t help that someone can say one thing to me and it can flip a switch in my brain. I’m a messy introverted time-bomb, and I’m used to the idea that anyone can trigger me at any time. I’m even progressing really far with recovering from all these little metaphorical stab wounds really quickly. I seem to have developed a sense where I can step back and look at things objectively(ish) and analyse other people’s actions, my reactions, and which bits are reasonable in a constructive way. In a calm state that miraculously co-exists with my extremely emotional state.

Focusing on myself isn’t something I’m used to (although this blog would have you think otherwise). I get extremely stressed out if I have the impression that the people I’m with aren’t happy. I have a completely unrealistic expectation that everything should be perfect all the time. And a lot of the lengths I go to in order to satisfy both those things is, quite frankly, ridiculous. I am the girl who has put your socks in the airing cupboard so they’ll be warm when you put them on. I’m the girl who listened to you complain that you felt trapped & wanted to change your life and then bought you a travel book to bring your dream a bit closer. I am the girl who buys you doughnuts when you’re sad, who drinks the alcohol she doesn’t like because she knows you went to the effort to buy it, who covers for you when you make a mistake even if it adds an hour to her day, who has already done a million little things for you that you haven’t even realised. But that’s okay; she doesn’t expect anything back.

Sometimes I’d just love for someone to give me a little more credit for the things I deal with in the position I’m in, but then I think, I don’t need that recognition from other people. I can be proud of myself, because I’m the person who understands exactly how far I’ve come and what I’ve been dealing with. I have finally got to the part where I accept that I feel things more extremely than other people, that my brain is wired a different way, and I don’t often act as people expect. Or even as I expect. I think acceptance and management are the most important aspects of that, and as I’m learning to manage situations better, I’m also being less hard on myself. It’s made an unbelievable difference. In stressful situations where I could easily break down and cry, I’m surrounded by people who are there for me and help me see the funny side, and that’s more important than anything.

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The third F

From fourteen to fifteen, I did GCSE psychology. This was the first time I studied the “fight or flight” response in any depth. To keep things simple, they only described it on a basic level, but at the back of my mind now is a third F – “freeze”.

To me, freeze is the emotional shutdown stage. You carry on doing what you’re supposed to do (until you can’t any more or something changes), but as minimally as possible. Fundamentally, you’re subconsciously reacting by not reacting, if that makes sense. You shut down, you’re on autopilot. None of what you do, say or think matters to you.

You don’t feel, because freezing is protective. Freezing helps stop you from hurting any more and helps stop your brain and mind having to deal with anything else on top of what is already overwhelming to the point of dysfunction. It’s a dreamlike state that would be dangerous if it weren’t so exhausting because you’re running on the fewest resources possible. It’s the final step before just giving up and stopping to sit down in the street permanently, like a toy train that stops when the batteries run out.

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(Vaguely unrelated luminarium photo; the rest are on Flickr).

Conversely, freezing is also the most relaxed state. There’s no panicking, racing heart, anxiety or adrenaline. In that sense it’s much more of an evolved human reaction or mechanism, as opposed to a primal one. There’s no immediate threat to life; but there is physical and mental recognition that resources need to be conserved. Preparation for future healing needs to take place.

One thing it does actively do is strip you of your humanity, which is both a good and a bad thing. Most people who meet me don’t realise I’m an introvert at heart, and I frequently feel awkward around people. I like my space and my freedom. I get impatient easily. I like to be able to get totally absorbed in what I’m doing. I like to write out my emotions to deal with them. I don’t want to be frozen, but when it happens it’s something of a relief because it’s so hard when your thinking and ideas and musings are never-ending, even asleep.

This blog post was brought to you by accidentally unmedicated Jenni and her current favourite song.

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Thinking big

I’m often criticised for making things overly complicated, and that’s because I default to thinking big. It’s actually one of my more optimistic traits: that anything you can think of must somehow be possible if you fit it into the right context with the right resources. Having said that, many of my ideas are easily entire businesses in themselves. When they need to be shrunk down to fit a website or marketing campaign, and then there’s still oceans of work and resources needed and it has to be scaled back again, there’s often an ‘oops’ moment where I feel a bit sheepish.

The plus side is that once that stage is reached (often with some help!), is that I get to do stuff that no one in the industry has ever done before. And that’s pretty exciting. One of my favourite feelings in the world is when something that only I could see in my head suddenly appears in real life, brought together by designers and/or developers, when just a few minutes or hours or days or weeks ago, it didn’t exist. And I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do that.

Not everything ends up exactly how I’d like, but that’s okay. Other companies and professionals and plenty of others copy my work (with varying success), but that’s okay too. It means more to me, because I’ve spent hours thinking over every angle and every reason to determine whether to make this decision or that decision, and why. They don’t have that insight. They see what they think is a good piece of content, or useful tool, or successful strategy. But they don’t have the insider information that makes it all work. The secret sauce and hidden extras that are all internal, and very often stop something from being simply mediocre, and turn it into something genuinely successful. It also encourages me to think differently: how can I do something that’s harder to copy? How can I do something that has secret aspects to it that aren’t visible to the naked eye?

I like things to be perfect. I like things to be interesting. I hate – and resent – doing anything I don’t enjoy. And that might be very Generation Y of me, but I’m lucky in that I enjoy 99.9% of what I do. And the 0.1% of the time I don’t, it’s more likely to be a frustration I have…that I need a colour that doesn’t exist, or there literally isn’t code that exists that will let me do what I want.

Yeah…that sounds pretty crazy. Welcome to my world, please mind the bunnies.

The problem is that I can’t turn my brain off. And when you start thinking about everything in the world from every single angle, and there’s always a nagging voice in your head competing with a doubtful one and dozens of others, it gets very overwhelming very quickly. I would love to be able to switch my brain off naturally, rather than having to recognise what’s happening through all the noise and then end up having to think more about a healthy way to calm down and relax according to the given situation and the tools available to me.

The question is, would I change it permanently? Probably not.

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Little things that make me happy

Every morning, without fail, I’m in a rush to get to work. It may be because I’ve been doing chores, my pills make it hard to wake up in the morning (torture, because I’m very sensitive to the seasons generally and like to wake up early in summer), or because I’m tired from the night before. But regardless, you can rest assured I’m rushing the 15-20 minute walk to work. I grab my stuff, head down to the canal, and see all the regular people walking past in the opposite direction. The middle aged guy who always reads his newspaper and is oblivious to every other human being. The guy who looks like a cross between two of my coworkers and is always on his phone. The boat people who are cooking bacon and toasting bread and enjoying the sunshine. The people with the dogs.

I notice the regulars, and I look out for them purely because I know how late (or, more rarely, on time) I am by where on my route I am when I pass them. A fleeting glance, a twinge of jealousy that they’re so leisurely, and then my brain goes back to, ‘What am I doing today? Who do I need to email? What did I need to finish?’

Until I get to the point where I see this boat:

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And yes, it may be a bit quaint, or cheesy, but it completely serves its purpose. I instantly slow down, take a deep breath, and become more mindful. That way I don’t miss the mama (papa?) moorhen passing food to its squeaky young. I notice how relaxing the ripples of water are when the light dances off them. I hear the sounds of people and nature co-existing, even in the city. And even though I haven’t yet eaten breakfast and I definitely haven’t had time to do yoga on my decking as planned, I feel calmer and more inclined to think about the things that make me happy, like…

Cuddles. Halo is one of the cuddliest cats ever, and will cuddle anything that’s left out, including blankets, TV remotes, and feet.

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Survival against all odds. I’ve blogged before about all my plant failures, but this bad boy has survived a winter of frost and lived to tell the tale. In ‘Jenni’s plant’ years, he’s about 512.

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Pretty things. Like shoes, and experimentation of who I present to the outside world. Pretty deep for a bit of fabric, no?

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Making geeky cupcakes. Because I now have an edible printer, and I’m a massive geek who loves cake.

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Photography. Because last night, when I was taking these photos, I was completely absorbed and joyful. The only thing I was thinking about was how I’m never happier than when I’m behind a camera.

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Focusing on the successes and happy things, however small, reminds me how lucky I am. Being happy doesn’t need to mean ridiculous overachieving, carrying on to the point of exhaustion, or thinking so far ahead or behind that you don’t enjoy the present. I’m still learning to do that and reminding myself to do that, but I’m getting there.

What are your happy things right now?

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That whole self-exploration thing

I’d love to say I’m easing myself slowly back into my life.

But I’ve always been an extremist, and I doubt that’s ever going to change. This four (and a half, yay for annual leave) day weekend I did ALL THE THINGS with ALL THE PEOPLE and it was fantastic. I’m exhausted, and in my overdraft, but it was completely worth it :)

Friday afternoon was the Creative Quarter’s first birthday picnic. Considering the weather was all over the place at the weekend, we were lucky that it was sunny for that! I got a chance to catch up with a couple of people, and found myself confirming to speak at at least one event (potentially three), so that’s scary but exciting. I’ve already been roped into doing a talk at Google in London in September, so this’ll be good practice. It’s something I’ve been thinking about doing for a while, but my anxiety has always held me back. I just need a more positive attitude towards it and a lot of planning, and it’ll be fine. It’s too good an opportunity to turn down.

Strawberries and free cake were on the menu…

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My friend Hannah came to visit for the weekend, so we just went shopping after the picnic and then chilled out at mine.

On Saturday, we pretended to be proper adults and went to B & Q to get plants. Plants are one of my worst things; despite four very able green-fingered parents between us, Joe and I kill plants constantly. It’s more a case of replacing them when they’re dead than anything else. We did have some success at growing fruit and veg a couple of years ago though, so I bought some more strawberry plants. They’re all still alive 4 days later, so I think I’m on to a winner here ;) The guy at the checkout also confessed to killing a cactus, which made me feel a lot better about killing 4 spider plants (winning by losing, yay).

We dropped the plants off at my house and then dashed out in the rain to the local cake decorating shop, which was doing a demo of cake lace. Cake lace is amazing and I keep meaning to invest in all the stuff, but I just haven’t had the money or space to store it. They’d mentioned something about free cake on Facebook (second day of free cake – yay), but when we got there we found a whole host of party food and drinks. They even had non-alcoholic wine, which was suprisingly nice. And their usual fabulous cakes on display:

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I was very restrained and only bought a couple of cheap things – a box of mushrooms for the Mario Kart themed cupcakes I’m making soon, and a star stencil I’ve wanted for ages but couldn’t justify buying (£15.99 for a small sheet of thin plastic?!). I found a couple with ripped packaging in the clearance bit and picked up one for £5; still expensive, but a lot more reasonable.
And there was a free goody bag:

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After that we dashed back home to pick up the car and drive to Derby, where we were picking up one of my work friends to go to the theatre. We saw a local production of Avenue Q, featuring one of our other friends, and it was funny and sweet and endearing in equal measures. Super blurry photo because my phone camera didn’t have a chance to focus before the lights went down, but it’s kind of arty:

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Then after that we had a delicious meal at an Italian place (4 main meals between the three of us because we decided to get a whole pizza as a side!) and then it was time to drive back home and collapse on the sofa.

On Sunday we ended up going shopping in town again. I feel a bit shallow because for the first time in years I’m more obsessed with clothes than anything else (normally it’s photography stuff, computer games and books), but it’s all part of finding (or re-finding?) myself. I was always very fixed on who I was and what I liked, but at the beginning of the year, when I lost myself, that all changed. I’m still figuring out what I actually like (rather than what people tell me I should like), and I try to pick out at least one thing I would never normally wear to see what it looks like. There’s been some hilarious moments as a result, but I’ve been slowly moving away from my usual jeans, Skechers and t-shirts combos. I’ve also been buying a lot more in the way of skirts and dresses, in the hope that the weather will get good enough again to wear them. I feel like a different person, and whilst I’m still fully working out who that person is, I like her and understand her a lot more than the crazy girl from the past year. So maybe it’s not as shallow as I first thought. Also, everyone needs two pairs of Marvel pyjamas, right?

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After shopping, we’d planned to go to the luminarium (a gorgeous light display thing), but the queue was crazily long and so we sat by the lake and had a mini-picnic in the sun instead.

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Then we went home with the intention of crashing, but my housemate had a load of our friends over, so we ended up sorting the plants, gaming, chatting and generally just having a laugh.

On Monday we got the train to Sheffield for a day of even more shopping (books instead of clothes this time!) and lunch and a coffee with two of our old college friends, which was fab. Then we got the train back and went straight to the luminarium.

Me trying to remember how to use my camera:

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It was fantastic, and definitely worth doing…I’ll upload my photos to Flickr when I get a chance.

Phew! Back to reality today, and I have a lot to catch up on! Even though I felt massively overwhelmed as soon as I sat down at my desk this morning, I’m concentrating on one task at a time and ploughing though. I’ve made a mega list of things, and they’ll take as long as they take. I just feel so much happier having done lots of stuff with people I care about a lot, and not overthinking or worrying for a change. I’m definitely building up a good foundation; I still have a long way to go, but overall it’s looking positive :)

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Mirror, mirror…

…on the wall. Who’s the craziest of them all?

Not this girl.

I’ve just had my last therapy session (and no, I didn’t know it was going to be my last, but hey ho). I feel happy, but also a bit scared. The most important part is, I think I can do this now. There will be bad days, but there will be far more good days and far more epic days.

What they don’t tell you about depression is that even the most simple question becomes loaded with meaning. When people ask, “How are you?” you don’t give a rushed, socially acceptable “Fine, thanks”. You have to actually think about it and give a more detailed response. Or, if you overthink everything to the extent I do, you consider recent events, current feelings, and when the person last asked so you don’t repeat yourself or miss something out. Which is even harder to do when your memory is crapper and you haven’t been sleeping well. But I digress.

The point is, when people stop asking me how I am in a concerned way, I’ll know I’m better. Even choosing “when” for that sentence rather than “if” is a big step. The future still scares me, but I know that living in the present and enjoying each hour as it comes is what I need to do. I’m surrounding myself with healthy, happy people and I’ve reclaimed my life.

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Visual creativity

Today I’m in one of those moods where I just want to create. I want to make something beautiful and be proud of what I’ve created.

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(Photos all taken with my phone camera – sorry).

It’s a long time since I’ve felt like that. Photography, design, and all my usual creative outlets have been put on hold for so long…I don’t think I’ve had this much time away from them since university. I’ve still been baking a lot, but it’s not the same thing, and doesn’t give me the same feeling of using arty skills (unless I’m painting on cakes for a course or doing sugar work, which is very rare).

This week has been quite busy. As well as work, I had a work friend over Friday night, then one of my old college friends came to stay on Saturday and Sunday. Monday afternoon I went to a city farm and soft play (I’m such a child) with two of my university friends and their son, last night a few of us went to see Divergent (amazing, definitely worth watching), and tonight it’s Second Wednesday. Tomorrow night I’m planning to stay in because I have a shitload of Coke Zero/Cherry Coke Zero being delivered. I have a doctor’s appointment on Friday, and then it’s the weekend. I need to exchange a top I bought last week for a smaller size, and do my share of house cleaning, but other than that I’m free. Assuming nothing else comes up, I’m going to spend some time designing, taking photos, and uploading all the photos I’ve neglected.

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More importantly, I’m doing this for me. I’m going to create things purely for the pleasure of creating, and not because I’m paid to or I feel like I should. I’m looking forward to creating a playlist of my favourite songs and staying up till I can hear the birds. Even more importantly, I no longer dread weekends. I’m learning to live for myself and do things that make me happy. And despite the endless repetition of ‘You need to find out who you are’ from my psychiatrists (now pretty much non-plural, which is definite progress), it turns out I’m actually really happy with who I am and what I do generally. Things just needed some balancing, tweaking and refining. I’m still working on the whole balancing thing, but even stepping back to be more conscious of it helps.

Normally after I publish a blog post that goes on about how happy I am, it’s followed by a crash within a couple of days. This time it hasn’t been like that at all, and I’m grateful. I’m enjoying being happy, I’m enjoying smiling more, and I’m relieved I don’t have to make drastic life changes to get to that point. It’s amazing being able to enjoy things, feeling calm and stable, and having ‘normal’ reactions to things. Yes, I still get grumpy when I’m tired. I’m mildly aggravated when I’ve asked someone to do something multiple times and it still hasn’t happened. I’m not expecting rainbows and unicorns 24/7…that’s just unrealistic. But calm and consistent human being? I’ll have that every time please :)

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Fighter

I want to say that I feel like my old self again. But I don’t.

I feel a million times better.

My moods are stable and calm, I look forward to things with the childish delight I used to have, and I’m actually happy.

Happier than I can ever remember, actually. I still have the occasional short bout of anxiety, but each day gets better and better, and in a manageable way rather than a high > low kind of way. It’s definitely not days or weeks of feeling constantly depressed. At one point I was taking a herbal supplement from Holland & Barrett that is commonly used by ecstasy users after a comedown, and it was working – that’s how bad I felt.

What’s changed? Well, my body has finally adapted to my medication and it seems to have kicked in. All the side effects have just about worn off (fingers crossed), and although I’m generally more tired and my immune system has taken a hit, it’s completely worth it. However, I think the thing that’s made the bigger difference is ketosis.

I’ve always hated the idea of a low-carb diet, because I love nothing more than pizza and potatoes and ice cream…and thousands of other things. But I started looking at low calorie diets a while back and they are all low-carb. After trying one out for a while, the inevitable happened and I had a weekend binge on hot cross buns, pizza and various other things. I was irritable, had mood swings, felt depressed, and hated the way my body felt physically. So I started again with a different company and returning to a low-carb diet has made a massive difference. Yes, I could probably do it without meal replacement stuff, and that’s my long-term plan, but right now it’s nice to not have to think too much or feel like I’m missing something from my meals.

Back in ketosis, I’m much calmer and more relaxed. I think it’s probably because my blood sugar stays very stable rather than spiking, but who knows what other chemical things are going on inside my brain. Yes, it’s tough when people are always around me eating the foods I love, and when I’ve been baking every week, and going out and only being able to drink water, but it’s 100% worth it. I’ve always said I’d sell my soul to the devil to stop feeling so depressed and anxious, and really the sacrifices I’ve made are tiny in comparison to the returns – being happy with the life I have. Because at the end of the day, I’m incredibly lucky and I want to be able to enjoy the things I’ve worked so hard for.

Therapy has provided a little additional help. It’s still irregular in terms of actual sessions, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading around psychology, emotional abuse, moods etc. and it kickstarted the road to recovery for me. I’ve always felt there were certain jigsaw pieces I was missing, and it turns out there were. Even being made conscious of them was a huge weight off my shoulders and has helped me learn how to cope with situations that used to floor me. I’m still working on giving myself more respect and less of a hard time, and undoing the damage of many years, but I’ll get there.

I’m feeling much better about leaving chores undone, going out with friends, travelling, going to work/industry events and everything else. Which is fantastic timing because I have a lot on this month, and it can only get better as the daylight hours increase :) I’m not beating myself up about doing nothing, I’m spending a lot more time away from work, thinking about work a lot less, and I’m concentrating on me. I’m genuinely enjoying the things I do instead of using them as distractions to stop me feeling so bad. I frequently still stop myself and think, “Am I doing this because I want to or because someone else wants me to?” I can’t do everything and be everything to all people all the time. I’ve noticed that the slightly more selfish people in my life tend to be the more contented ones.

For once, my doctor’s advice – ‘it gets worse before it gets better – was spot on. It’s been a completely insane journey, but if it was necessary to get to where I am now then what’s done is done. Don’t get me wrong, I would still have changed a few things, but I’m concentrating on looking forwards now, not back. I hope to be blogging more frequently and going back to some web stuff, but if I don’t then it’s because I just don’t feel like it at that time. And that’s okay.

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