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190307-AcuPCOS image-three women brunette smilingAs some of you might know, as well as being a GP, I am a postdoctoral researcher trying desperately to balance work and life, and learn a little bit about this thing called “resilience”.

For the past two years I have been researching Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is incredibly common – around 1 in 10 women in Australia will have symptoms of it, and those symptoms range from difficulty falling pregnant and irregular periods, to hairiness where you don’t want hair to grow, and even anxiety and depression symptoms. As the women in one of my studies said, the “whole package deal” of PCOS is pretty confronting. But the thing that concerns a lot of women is the weight gain that can be more stubborn with PCOS.

I’ve been looking for a non-pharmacological treatment that may be able to help with some of the symptoms of PCOS, and naturally acupuncture comes to mind because it’s a treatment I’m familiar with (being a trained Chinese medicine acupuncturist as well as Western doctor) and it’s also a relatively safe treatment.

Some preliminary studies suggest that acupuncture may be helpful for weight loss, in conjunction with lifestyle changes, and so I went about looking for funding for a trial on acupuncture for weight loss in women with PCOS.

In a serendipitous turn of events, my encounter with Bearded Man, which I describe in my post Why I’m Done With Impostor Syndrome, led to a little pot of funding for my clinical trial.

I really really enjoy clinical trial research, because I get to talk to so many people about what it’s like to live with what they live with. I talked to hundreds of women about their hot flushes. Now I talk to dozens of women about PCOS. But I need more women.

This is therefore a shameless plug for my clinical trial, my pride and joy, on acupuncture for weight loss in PCOS. We have an amazing team of some of the best researchers in the world in PCOS behind us, and my research assistant Adele is also pretty fantastic herself.

This is for women in Sydney aged 18-45 who are not on the pill, Mirena/other hormonal treatments or Metformin, and who aren’t planning on getting pregnant in the next 3 months.

We desperately need to find more options for women with PCOS so they can lead healthy, happy lives. Please consider sharing with anyone you know who may be interested and who lives in Sydney. They can sign up for our trial here or email me at c.ee@westernsydney.edu.au.

Thanks for helping me find a way to help one in ten women. 

 

 

 

 

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My family know that I am in no way a gardener; instead of having a green thumb, I seem to not be able to keep the least demanding plants alive. Until now.

A few months ago, a good friend told me that I could plant cherry tomatoes with half a bought tomato from the supermarket. My six year old adores cherry tomatoes and they are expensive little things (the tomatoes that is, and perhaps my six year old too!) so I thought, what the hey, let’s cut one up and plant it.

We buried two cherry tomato halves in soil and waited patiently. I obediently watered our tomatoes whenever the soil looked dry. Every day we examined the soil for any sign of greenery. Nothing happened for a few weeks. I thought my fate as a non-gardener was sealed. But I kept watering, and hoping, and thinking of those tiny little seeds lying buried in that dark soil.

Eventually, on a very thrilling morning, we saw a couple of tiny leaves poking through that were decidedly not weeds. Oh, the excitement! I kept dutifully watering my little seedlings, and added some fertiliser every week.
Thomas (left) and Thomasina (right). And yes, those are eggshells in the soil. Adds calcium and helps little plants grow! #greenthumb
Thomas (left) and Thomasina (right). And yes, those are eggshells in the soil. Adds calcium and helps little plants grow! #greenthumb
I pulled out weeds and kept the soil moist. I was really rooting (pardon the pun) for those little leaves, and started looking forward to seeing them every morning. My little leaves grew riotous. Every day, they poked up further and further, quickly becoming tall and bushy, so much so that I had to begin to stake them. (Yes, me! Staking tomatoes!)
Thomas and Thomasina - early days
Thomas and Thomasina – early days
Getting big - gotta stake them!
Getting big – gotta stake them!
In a bit of a Boaty McBoatface moment, we named one Thomas and the other Thomasina. I started talking to Thomas and Thomasina every day, just spending some time watering them and sending them my encouraging thoughts. In fact, they became a big part of my stress management plan. Thomas and Thomasina rewarded me with tiny white flowers which turned into tiny green tomatoes and then – weeks later – actual red tomatoes. 
#proudmummymoment
#proudmummymoment
 

I planted Thomas and Thomasina at a time when I, too, was ready to thrive. The last four years, on top of what seems like a whole adult life of anxiety, neuroses, hangups, and a complete inability to be kind to myself, were intense. Intensely dark at times, with incredible stresses I had never imagined. I felt, at many times, what those little seeds must have experienced – the oppression, the terror, the overwhelming panic of being buried. But like my little seeds, I eventually learned (with help) to relax into where I was and start caring for myself. I tamed that awful voice in my head that gave a running commentary of how I was stuffing up, again, in all areas of my life. I made space for the person I had forgotten I used to be. I asked myself, during challenging times, what I needed at that moment. I learned how to take proper breaks. I stopped working at nights and weekends. I gave myself little pep talks whenever my knees felt shaky. I let my loved ones care for me. I spent time with my beautiful family. I learned to breathe slowly and deeply through every waking moment. I put myself first because I realised if I didn’t, I had nothing left to give. And when all else failed, I phoned a friend and had a laugh.

Thomas and Thomasina have taught me so much about life. When you feel buried under it all, relax and take a breath. Start where you are and use what you have. Shower yourself with self care. Believe that the sun is still out there. Don’t give up hope. Add the things that truly nourish your soul and give you the courage to put out tiny roots. And when you break through the surface, and see that amazing blinding sun, keep reaching for the stars. Stand tall and proud. You are amazing!
 
And most importantly, you exist to keep the circle of life going. (I love the song. It’s actually my ring tone). You will bear fruit and this gives everyone hope and spreads the love. 
 

Like Thomas and Thomasina, I was buried but reached for the sun and stars. I’ve learned so many things about how to care for myself so that I can be my best self and help others. And I hope you’ll come along with me on this journey so we can learn from one another and stand tall together. Just like Thomas and Thomasina.

When I see those blessed red tomatoes now I imagine they are whispering to their seeds,

It’s ok. They buried me once. And look at me now!” 
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Today, on World Mental Health Day, I am hoping everyone checks in on how they’re travelling. Are you waking up feeling energised and enthusiastic about the day ahead? Are you finding joy in the small things? Or do you wake in a panic, already drowning in a pool of dread about the insurmountable problems that make up your life?

If you’re doing the former, well done! You’ve clearly prioritised your mental health. If you’re the latter, welcome to the club. You’re not alone. That is actually a description of me, just a few months ago.

I’ve been honest about my mental health, partly because it’s therapeutic to write about, but increasingly because I see the need for people to put their hand up and say “I’m needing a little help right now”. It’s not ok in our Instagram-obsessed world to not be perfect, it seems. And to be really honest, most of us don’t have the time or space to seek help. We’re so busy just trying to survive the onslaught of the day.

The thing is, if you had a sore leg, or a funny rash, you would eventually go to see someone. You would walk in and say, “Doctor, I have a sore leg/funny rash. What’s causing it, and what can I do?” It’s a shame we are not as forthcoming with our mental health as we are with our acute physical health. It’s not like poor mental health doesn’t impact on our function – our ability to thrive, contribute meaningfully and joyfully, and be at peace. It does, and very much so.

I sought help. I went to my GP, found a Lovely Psychologist, and she helped me with my long standing anxiety. I’ve even recently graduated from therapy! And I no longer wake up in a pool of dread. I find joy in very, very, small things. Just the other day, when I was replacing the toilet paper – joy. In the smallest of things…

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Who knew toilet paper could bring so much joy. Not me.

*One thing is, when you ask for help, please go to the right people. While there are many excellent allied health professionals and complementary therapists, who may understand many aspects of mental health, and are often wonderful team members, treating people with mental health problems like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders usually also needs expertise within general practice, psychology and often psychiatry. You may also need screening for physical disorders that can impact on mental health. I won’t go into how woefully underfunded mental health services can be, as that’s another story. *

Here are three things that I hope people will understand about asking for help. First, it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of immense courage. The courage to be vulnerable, as this lady would say.

The indomitable Brene. If you haven’t heard of her you may have been living under a rock

 In Japan, broken pottery is repaired with gold. Each piece is considered beautiful because of its’ flaws.

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Also – this from Leonard Cohen.

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I hope you ask for help this week, if you are needing it. If you’re not yourself, if the wheels have fallen off, if something’s just not right. You are not alone. I hope my story illustrates that a little.

And that you start to let some of the light in. x

If you are feeling suicidal please seek immediate help from a trained mental health professional. Your GP, hospital, or Lifeline (131144) can help. 

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A very dear friend, whom I consider to be one of the wisest and kindest in the world, said these words yesterday and I could not agree more with her. The other amazing thing is that she said this in front of a group of people living with Type 2 diabetes, during a program we are running for a research project. What does grief have to do with diabetes, you ask? Well I can’t tell you the details of what we discussed, but as a GP, I see the effects of grief frequently, and I don’t think we give it enough space. We are afraid of acknowledging it, often not even aware that it’s there. But it’s absolutely true that joy and connection are waiting on the other side.

 

Trigger warning : I am going to talk about stuff that makes people sad, and this may make you cry. That’s ok. Crying is a great way to release emotions, and I am not embarrassed to say I am crying right now.

 

Grief isn’t just about losing someone you care about when they die, although this is a common form of grief and often the most painful. You might be grieving the loss of many things – your health, your youth, your children’s youth, the fact that you can’t have children. You might grieve a function that you used to have but no longer have. The first thing about grief is that it’s final and you can’t do anything to bring that person, experience, or thing back. The second thing about grief is that you grieve because you care.

 

I’ve been grieving over the past few years. My grief is intense, and also intensely personal and private, and not something I can share beyond a few close friends (and my Lovely Psychologist). (Grief is even harder when you can’t speak about it openly, I find). And yet, despite this, despite waking up each day knowing that the world has changed forever, I have managed to experience joy. I have actively sought joy because I have to believe that the world goes on and life is good. I have watched movies that made me laugh so hard I thought I would be incontinent. I have had wonderful family holidays, and made lots of memories. I have kissed my sleeping children goodnight every single night, and breathed in that wonderful sweet warm sleeping children smell, and felt that amazing gooey melty feeling you get whenever you touch a cheek that is still round, still innocent, still full of wonder and curiosity and unbridled enthusiasm. I’ve savoured being in bed each night, tired muscles, tired brain, tired head on pillow, just feeling so good because I’m finally lying down. I’ve enjoyed food, wine, sunshine, the beach, the forest, ice cream, hugs, and cat videos.

 

Grief makes you realise nothing can be taken for granted. Your world could collapse (or feel like it’s collapsing) with one phone call. Grief hurts a lot, but there is no painkiller that doctors can provide. We are absolutely powerless in the face of intense loss. Grief invites you to do nothing else apart from to sit with that pain and ride it out. Initially you might feel very very alone, but if you allow yourself to do so, people will help you. Maybe it’s a stranger, maybe it’s a colleague you barely know, or it could be your best friend or someone you know well. Maybe it’s just a dogwagging its tail in the park. But on the other side of grief, first there is connection with other living things. You are not alone. It sucks being human, sometimes. (or like my nine-year-old says, “I just don’t understand life”). Then it will, slowly, start to suck a lot less, with time. Then, one day, joy bursts into your life, and much like the sun blinds you when you walk out into it after being in a dark room, it’s very very very bright. And you realise the sun was shining all along – you just needed to be in your dark, alone room until you were ready.

 

So if you’re grieving, I invite you to sit in that room and honour the memory of whatever it is you are grieving over. It’s clearly important to you. But keep your ears, eyes, and all your senses open to joy. Joy is waiting for you, I promise.

 

If you are struggling with your grief, please talk to a trained professional. In Australia, you can call Lifeline if you are in need of immediate help on 13 11 14. 

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When you were babies and I went back to work and a PhD, it was all about you.

I worried that you may be somehow compromised by having a mother who left you on some days of the week to pursue a career. This was a selfish and dangerous act, I was told by the media (and indeed, by other women). My babies would end up depressed, anxious, starved of love, neglected, and generally traumatised by our separation. I was told you would never grow up quite right, that the experience of having a mother who wasn’t always there would somehow affect you forever and you would end up needing therapy.

I was also told I was a bad mother, or worse I wasn’t even a mother, but that’s for another post.

So I did what every other parent who works outside the home does. I loved you as much as I physically and emotionally could when I was around. I read to you every night, rocked you to sleep, slept with your little faces close to mine, took you for walks, to the park, planned your birthday parties, had playdates at the zoo, gave you baths, taught you how to use a spoon and fork. I did all the things. I fit my schedule around you. Throughout the PhD I made sure to fit in days to wake up late with you, to have a pleasant day wandering out to the playground followed by a nap, and a play at home. This would compensate for the times when you were suffering without me, in the care of another loving adult.

Now you’re in primary school – where did the time go? And along with you eventually becoming toilet trained, learning to strap yourselves in, do up your own shoes, shower yourselves, read and ride a bike, my PhD has morphed into something called “academia”. Last year was a blur of meetings, grants, conferences, deadlines, crises, reports, and way too many weekends spent “working”. Throw in clinical work and I was one stressed mumma. Yet you continued to flourish and thrive despite me not being around all the time. You are, undecidedly, two of the most loving, confident, infectious, joyful, resilient and engaging children I’ve ever met. And you love kale. Kale is your favourite thing. How did I pull that off?! I may be biased of course, and you’re not perfect (Exhibit A Your Honour – yesterday’s bickering in the car which required my “mum voice” and an order to please cease talking immediately or mummy will lose her shiz big time) but somehow, in the midst of the PhD, while I was trying so hard to ensure your needs would never be unmet, you’ve grown into two beautiful and bright little people.

Sometime last year, I cannot remember when, I experienced “The Meltdown”. This went on for quite a while. I had the sense of losing complete control over my schedule. I was hurtling down into an armageddon of endless demands. To compensate, I did what I’ve always done- worked harder. It finally occurred to me that this could not be the solution any more. I was working myself into the ground with nothing to show for it.

I’m now in recovery. And I’ve made a conscious decision to pull back, to say no, to protect my weekends and even my evenings. Work smarter not harder. Take breaks. And I’m not doing this for you this time. I’m doing it for me.

I need you like never before. After a week of battling my old friend Impostor syndrome, of juggling students and meetings and projects and people, I need to listen to your fart jokes, see your wide smiles breaking like the most beautiful sunrise across a beautiful little face. I need to be lulled by the gentle rhythms of the weekend – lazy breakfasts, baking, going to the beach, watching Pokemon. I need to listen to the musical chatter of your imaginative play, and I need to kiss you every night, once when you go to bed, and once more when I turn in, so I can see you sleeping and feel my heart explode. You complete me and revive me in a way my career never will. You put the strength back into me that ebbed away during the week. On Monday mornings I feel human again, I feel whole, and I have enough charge to get through another week.

Maybe I’ve always done all the things for me, and not for you. It’s just that parenting always seemed to focus on the needs of the child and not the parent. I’m learning now, the hard way, that self care for parents is the number one priority.

So it’s not you, it’s me. I’m saying no to weekend work, to the demands, not because you’ll be compromised and need therapy, but because I will. It’s time for me to thrive and flourish.

Thank you for growing up into the beautiful people that you are today. It gives me faith every day that I’m somehow doing the right thing.

Your loving mumma

x

 

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I’ve been on a journey to discover how to be happier for some years now. Initially it was pretty vague, but as the stressful events in my life ramped up, it took on a great deal more focus. Funny how that happens. 

Happiness research has similarly taken off in the past decade or two, and I won’t attempt to be an expert on this. You can go wild reading the excellent work of other people who are experts in happiness. Some of my favourites are Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Dan Buettner who researches the Blue Zones. There are loads of others – I hope you read them all!

What I am an expert on is how I gradually learned how to happy. Yes, not how to be happy, but how to actively create happiness in my life. Happiness has not been a state that descended upon me from the Gods because of a lucky day or positive external events. It’s been a constant striving, continual learning, repeatedly picking myself up off the floor and putting one foot in front of the other type of journey. A bit like life! So that’s why I think of happy as a verb. To me, happy is a doing thing. 

Also, for me, happy went in stages. I couldn’t incorporate the other happy things before the first few happy things. There are loads of ways to boost your mood but until you go back to the very basic, dirty, grubby, boring bits, the very foundation of how you think about yourself, I believe the other happy things will just float off like the proverbial water off a duck’s back. 

So here was my very first Happy step: Being Kind (Or Gentle) To Myself.

I have written before about Impostor Syndrome. When I realised I had Impostor Syndrome, when it was verbalised for me, it was a revelation. That was many years ago. I worked with my Lovely Psychologist on many things not the least being Impostor Syndrome and the Voice In My Head. Do you know that voice? “You’re not good enough” “you don’t belong here” “You’re stupid” “You don’t know anything” “one day they will find out”. 

One early morning, as I walked to the bus stop, thoughts swirling round my head in the usual ruminating pattern, I suddenly stopped and had an epiphany. I was creating my own prison. Nobody was keeping me in this unhappy, miserable state except for me! I felt like slapping myself. Except, I didn’t. I started treating myself as I would a very dear friend. Sometimes you want to slap that friend for the things they do. We’re so close to them that we can see everything, the good and the bad. But we don’t slap them, not physically at least. We might gently say to them that they’re being completely silly and suggest another way forward. We laugh with them. We cry with them. We sit quietly and listen. We’re gentle. We’re supportive. We hold their hand and say, I’m here with you. 

The thing is, I wasn’t being there for myself. 

Gradually, as I became kinder to myself, the Voice In My Head went away. First it was quieter. Then it disappeared. It pops up from time to time. I’m learning to notice it rather than give in to it. I notice how my heart starts to race (not in a good way) when the Voice talks to me. After the episode when the Voice appeared, I reflect on what happened. Why did it appear? what was going on? How can I do better next time? And most importantly, I don’t berate myself about how I behaved when the Voice took over. I was nervous. I said the wrong thing. I reacted. etc. No big deal! I noticed the Voice and gradually I’ll be able to manage it even if I’m in an important meeting or having a crucial interpersonal event. 

I now tell all my patients that they have to be kind to themselves. Start with kindness. If you can’t be kind, at least be neutral. Everyone can at least hold their tongue, to themselves. Notice the things you did well. Be honest when you stuffed up – everyone does. Then move on. No big deal. You can try again. Kristin Neff is a self-compassion expert – I recommend you read what she’s written too. 

So there you go. That was my first happy step. There will be more to come!  I’d love to learn about your happy steps. Happiness is a personal journey, and what works for me may not be as important for you. Please comment below! x

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Try not to complain about getting old.

Many will not get the same privilege.

 

Try not to complain about having to see your family at Christmas. 

Many will be extremely lonely with little human connection. 

 

Try not to complain about your job. 

Many would love to be gainfully employed. 

 

Try not to complain about having to walk somewhere. 

Many would love to have two functional legs. 

 

Try not to complain about your children. 

Many would love to be, or still be, parents. 

 

Try not to complain about having to cook. 

Many would love to live in a home and have food on the table. 

 

In many ways, you are living someone else’s dream. 

 

As the poet Mary Oliver said, 

Do you need a prod?”

“You could live a hundred years, it’s happened. 

Or not“. 

 

So let me be urgent as a knife, as Mary so eloquently said. 

Instead, know that you are #livingthedream in many ways. 

 

Instead, love the wrinkles on your face. They tell your story. And you lived to tell your tale, unlike other people who were called early. 

 

Instead, remember just one happy memory from your childhood. Cherish that moment and keep that feeling in your heart during the awkward conversations at Christmas. 

 

Instead, enjoy the opportunity to contribute your talents and get paid for them. 

 

Instead, relish in the way your two hips, thighs, knees, ankles, and feet work in amazing unison to take you places. You are independent. How thrilling!

 

Instead, notice the way your children’s eyes light up when they laugh, or if they are teenagers, go into their room and look at them when they are asleep. (You’ll have to stay up late for this – or do this early in the morning). Marvel at this human that you raised. Yes, you! You fed and clothed and cared for this human and they grew and grew like a mushroom. Then spend a moment sending love and compassion to those with tiny empty beds, and empty hearts. 

 

Instead, prepare your food mindfully, with thanks. Make every meal a conscious one. This can help you to eat well too. 

 

In many ways, you are already living someone else’s dream. Maybe many dreams. 

 

I have known and cared for people with many shattered lives, who would love to be you. I just hope you know that, before it’s too late.

 

X

 

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Happy New Year! I generally enjoy the opportunity to reflect as the years tick over. But one of my pet peeves are the messages that come screaming out in abundance on Jan 1. “New Year New You!” or even worse – “Get a new body for the new year”. 

A new body?! My body’s perfectly fine, thank you.

You see, our bodies are amazing. I don’t think people appreciate this enough. Got a virus? You feel like death and your GP tells you to drink fluids, rest, and maybe take some zinc (which actually works. Try it!) Is your GP useless? No! We know that generally healthy people have amazing immune systems that kick viruses in the viral butt and you will feel fabulous with time. Nicked yourself shaving? Your body immediately commands platelets to go to the cut to form a clot, then healing occurs from the bottom up of your wound. Your body, your amazing body, then builds a framework of collagen to start healing that wound. White cells zing about to get rid of any bacteria. In time, you would hardly know that you ever had a cut there. Good as new!

The thing is, most people don’t like their bodies much at all. We walk around thinking negative thoughts about our bodies, about how our bellies wobble, our knees ache, our back hurts, our cellulite is gross, etc. And another sign we don’t like our bodies is that we trash them. We don’t feed our bodies enough whole food (most Australian adults don’t eat the recommended serves of fruit and veg a day), we don’t move them enough (most adults don’t get the recommended minutes of physical activity per week) etc. And we don’t look after our mental health – we fall into bad habits of rumination, lashing out in anger, impulse eating/shopping/drinking/smoking/whatever to ease mental discomfort. This has a huge impact on our body.

What if we loved our bodies instead, for the amazing things it does, even without us knowing it? What if we acknowledged and honoured it for the things it could do if we just treat it right? Would you expect an expensive sports car to run well if you don’t give it the right fuel and never take it for a service? Even if you’re unwell right now, your have a chronic condition like chronic pain, or parts of your body won’t work, focus on what it can do. Chances are you’re reading this right now with your own two eyes (or maybe even one eye!) Right now, light and shadows are being picked up by tiny cells in your retina, which send electrical signals down your optic nerves into your brain. WOW! Plus, our bodies have amazing capacity to heal even if you do have a chronic condition. Do you know you can reverse early diabetes with healthy eating and exercise?

 

This new year, I am challenging myself, and all of you, to love our bodies. Be proud of your body. Acknowledge the ways you haven’t looked after it, and then move on. What can you change? Start small – you can’t expect to run a half marathon if you barely did any exercise last year. What can you change tomorrow with your diet? Physical activity? Mental health? You start with loving yourself (yes Whitney had a point here…) and accepting yourself in your glorious imperfect self. Then you start treating your body the way it should be treated. Here are some ideas:

  • Nourish your body with plant-based whole foods. Eat more veggies. (French fries don’t count, sorry!) You’ll reduce  your risk of heart disease, and even your moods will improve! Fiber feeds your gut bacteria which can then produce more happy hormones.
  • Cut down on alcohol. Moderate drinking isn’t 3 glasses of wine a day. It’s 1 standard drink (less than one standard pour of wine) for ladies, and 2 standard drinks for men. Learn to unwind in other ways instead. Your body and your bank balance will love you for it.
  • Get enough sleep. Did you know sleep deprivation dials up the fight or flight response and makes you crave carbs?
  • Eat less sugar.
  • Move your body. Walk, hike, do zumba, play footy, whatever floats your boat. As long as it moves your body and raises your heart rate and you do it regularly.
  • Breathe. Learn to notice your breath. In and out. in and out. Hey! You’re meditating!
  • Laugh. A lot. Every day.
  • Strengthen your body. Do some weight training twice a week. This will help dem bones keep strong.
  • Most of all learn to be kind to yourself. 

My colleague Dr Kevin Yong, a GP who lives and breathes what he preaches, has some handy free guides to get you started. Click here to download!

BONUS!! You might be thinking that Dr Carolyn is SUCH a buzzkill right now. Cut down on wine?! Well I have a bonus recommendation for you. Coffee can be good for you! Thank you science! Here’s a wee blog I wrote about the evidence for coffee’s benefits. 

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So there you go. You don’t need a new body. Learn to love yourself, and love your body this year. Wishing you health and happiness!

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You may have heard about a tidying-up phenomenon known as Marie Kondo. Marie is a Japanese lady who wrote a book about throwing away things that don’t “spark joy“, and rolling up your socks so you can have a pristine sock drawer. I have to confess I am not a Kondo convert and I doubt I will ever be, even though the state of my sock drawer suggests that I probably should. But I want to tell you about another way to change your life. And it does involve sparking joy.
Marie Kondo is the pioneer of inspiring people to "choose joy and complete their tidying adventures". Bless her.
Marie Kondo is the pioneer of inspiring people to “choose joy and complete their tidying adventures”. Bless her.
Some five months ago or more I decided to introduce one new positive habit a week. Simple things. Drink more water. Go to bed early. Do ten pushups in the morning. And practise gratitude. I stopped doing the pushups recently, but gratitude has changed my life.
Instead of saying “I’m grateful for…” (which sounded a bit naff to me) I started with “Thank you for…” At first it was hard. I did this first thing in the morning as I opened my eyes. I couldn’t find much to be thankful for initially. My job was stressful, I felt overwhelmed constantly and the mornings were dark and laden with the promise of dragging kids out of bed, sheperding them through breakfast, getting ready for school, finding hats and jumpers and water bottles and signing excursion permission slips. I groaned in anticipation.
As a GP I’ve seen a bit more of what life can do to a person. I’ve cared for people with MS, people dying from brain tumours and all kinds of debilitating cancers, with traumatic brain injuries. I had a patient who was born with no eyes. Others were born without legs or arms. Some were paralysed in accidents. I’ve looked into the eyes of people with advanced motorneurone disease and seen fatigue, desperation, or sometimes, acceptance.
So I started with what I was familiar with. “Thank you for my legs that work,” I said, wiggling my toes. “Thank you for my eyes that can see,” I said, looking at the ceiling. And then I wondered what it would be like not to see my children every morning. Or not be able to pick them up when they needed me. Or if I had been given six months to live and my children would be left motherless. And then I got out of bed and got on with the day.
It went on like this for months. Always starting with the physical. Then something amazing happened. I started to be grateful at other times of the day. Spontaneous gratitude for simple moments like seeing a sunrise. Walking. Hearing the chirping conversations between my two gorgeous children. A warm hug at night. A welcoming house, lights on and children’s laughter wafting out, as I came home after a long day. Beach days. A smile from a stranger. Getting a seat on the bus. Walking down a peaceful street without being caught in a civilian war. Stretching. At these really simple everyday moments I found myself stopping to cherish the sweetness of being alive. I’m still here. Still kicking goals. Still got another day on this Earth – what a gift!
These amazing effects on my mental health are also backed by scientific evidence. Fascinating research suggests that as little as 12 weeks of practising gratitude improves mental health and happiness, and even changes your brain. I’m a walking science experiment!
Gratitude has given me the ability to let go of my rumination and not get caught up in negative spirals. Gratitude has given me the gift of mindfulness as well – I am attentive to the little joys. I find myself noticing a lot. A tiny bird in a tree. Pink clouds draped across the sky. The perfect grin on my five year old. I’m also able to get going on difficult days like today. It was raining buckets in Sydney and I had to walk to the bus stop. I was super grateful for the Wellington boots that kept my feet dry, to my cousin for suggesting the Wellington boots. And that kept me going through the wet walk when on other days I would have been fuming about the rain and arrived at the bus stop in a foul mood.
It won’t change your life overnight, but things will start to change with a simple daily practice. Wishing you plenty of joy, and hopefully, neat socks too. x
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baking-2881192_1920

baking-2881192_1920Recently I took some time off during the school holidays. We woke up late. We went cycling and rollerblading a lot. We had leisurely lunches and long walks. It was beautiful weather and the days seemed to stretch on forever, filled with wonderful things like baking brioche buns, reading in the sun, and looking at the ocean. One evening, while I was rolling out pizza dough, drinking red wine and listening to jazz after a spectacular day of coastal hiking, I felt a really strange sensation in my chest. It was light, much like the beautifully risen pizza dough. It felt good.

It was joy.

And that’s when it hit me. I don’t need a struggle between work and life. I don’t need work/life balance. I need work-work balance.

I am an academic, which means a PhD is merely entry level and a chance to start at the bottom of the pile. The scramble to the top involves endless performing. Writing, publishing, doing research, attending meetings, writing grants, supervising students, filling out forms in endless Uni bureaucracy, community and professional engagement, teaching, even (ironically) attending meetings about work-life balance and wellbeing at work. If I see another email about a “working group” and two hour meetings I think I will cry.

We are expected to perform like circus monkeys, pirouetting and balancing ever increasing loads in an effortless display of super-human skills. The said effortless display is rewarded with promotions, grants, and more responsibilities. It’s like some kind of bizarre Ponzi scheme that nobody talks about – the elephant in the room.

So I do not need work-life balance, thank you very much. What I desperately need is a brutal slashing of my workload. Because I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working evenings and weekends being an academic circus monkey. Weekends are for connecting with friends, nature, and myself. Weekends are for decompressing from work, remembering that there is a life outside of the grind of academia, that beyond the University nobody cares about my h-index. Weekends are for sitting in the sun and eating biscuits (shh – don’t tell my GP), feeling the wind in my hair as I ride my eight-year-old’s scooter having the best time of my life, spotting whales in the ocean, reading psychological crime thrillers, and discovering new places to visit. For long conversations with dear friends. For movies and popcorn with the kids.

It’s not my work that pushes the boundaries, it’s the work on top of the work on top of the work. Layer upon layer of effort, brain space, and time, each layer threatening to be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s these piles of terror that threaten my brioche baking time on weekends, that occasionally give me panic attacks, and lead to that heavy feeling on Monday mornings.

I don’t know what the answer is – either I am not cut out for academia, or I simply do the best I can with the time I am willing to give up. All I know is that nothing is worth the giving up of joy – that lovely, light feeling when I was rolling out pizza dough, that elusive elixir that I had not tasted for so many months due to my incredibly challenging schedule. But now that I’ve had a reminder, I am determined not to give it up.

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