Teaching, learning to teach, and (not) looking after myself somewhere in the middle.

None of you were probably wondering what plight has befallen my blogs as of late. Unfortunately I fell into the terrible trap of telling myself I didn’t have time to write, and boy did I pay for having that mentality.

Some of you may know this but since September I have been teaching. I work in a primary school in Thurrock, Essex. I teach 30 wonderful year 3 children and it’s been a blessing so far to give them an education. Alongside my job I’m studying for a PGDE. It’s a lot like a PGCE except it has a different letter in the acronym. It’s also two years long, so there’s that as well I suppose. My new life has left me feeling tantalisingly energetic in the same way that a beer-bellied 60 year old with creaky knees isn’t. As much as I love delivering an education to children, I have to come clean and say my life hasn’t been particularly brilliant these last couple of months. If this weren’t enough, I also have to reveal that *gasp* I haven’t exactly been very kind to myself during this time as well.

In the spirit of a reflective teacher, I’ve reflected on my blog posts. I’ve had such a long time away from thinking about what to write next them that I’ve been able to take a bit of a step back and look in on what I have written. My posts always appear to suggest I’ve cracked it, that I’ve come a step closer to mastering my mental health. The site charts a positive trajectory and whilst I would say I’ve come a long way from therapy, I don’t think of my progress as a positive linear stroll through the park. In reality there have been many regressions over the last few years and right now at this point in my life I am regressing. I’ve fallen off-track. This isn’t a post about how I encountered a problem and overcame it, this is me saying ‘oh… I’ve lost a lot.’

Let’s keep teaching on the shelf for now and discuss general life. I moved down to Essex in August, to an area called Grays. Don’t let the name fool you, it’s actually extremely dull. There’s a “beach” here which lies on the banks of the river Thames. I can’t slate it too much because it’s been a decent place to go reflect, but between you and me it’s an imposter beach. I’m in a house share which, if you know me, isn’t ideal. I can’t really write a post about my mental health without referring to my living situation at least once. It’s been a highly claustrophobic experience and hopefully I’ll soon be out of it. I haven’t been to a gym for longer than I’d like to admit and this is where we arrive at how I’ve been treating myself. I don’t really look after myself anymore. I always thought of self-care as being that constant holistic process whereby you take active steps to prioritise your needs, reflect on what’s going well and what could be better, and pay close attention to your flaws and how to improve them. I absolutely have not prioritised my needs. I haven’t exercised in weeks and I lament myself for it. I’ve put on weight because I keep drinking a dangerous cocktail, the main ingredients of which are neglect of exercise and an inconsistent diet. This has really impacted my self-confidence, and I find myself in a position now where my deteriorated physical condition makes me feel like a failure and my newness to the teaching profession has made me doubt my ability to success professionally. My entire mindset right now is toxic and it’s very hard to change it. I reflect occasionally on things I should be proud of, but by and large most of my thinking time is dedicated to aspects of my work, what I’m doing wrong or why I keep mucking up sorting my life out. In short, I’ve let my mind become a very messy, very unkind place over the last 8 weeks.

I’m going to write a separate post on life as a new teacher but for now I just wanted to express something about my new career. Unless you live in the land of make-believe you’ll know teaching is very hard. 12-13 hour days are common, the demands are extremely high and the school day is a microcosm filled with chaos. A lot of people have asked ‘how’s life as a teacher?’ and I’ve told them the positives, because I do truly feel very lucky to be in this job. However, I feel bad sharing the fact that I’m already burnt-out. I feel like I shouldn’t say what else is on my mind and that is that I’m struggling to cope with it. This job I love is exhausting and in the space of seven weeks I have dealt with more stress and heartbreak than I have in years. The learning curve-professionally, emotionally and mentally- has been ridiculously steep. As supported as I am in my job, I do still find myself questioning at this very early stage my capacity to be a good teacher. Rather than discuss this with people at length, blog about it or even write it down, I’ve kept it inside. This blog has been untouched and my journal hasn’t been opened in weeks.

I’m at a point now where I have taken a lot of the negatives of last term and have started to turn them into positives, the main one being my organisation. I can’t really say to you guys what my plan is to get better because to tell you the truth I don’t have one yet. I just wanted to dust the cobwebs off my fingers and get typing something that isn’t a lesson plan or professional reflection. You might call this step one of a sequence of baby steps to get myself back on track. It absolutely isn’t a miracle cure. However, it does feel good to get all this down. At the end of the day even after all the success I’ve had with tackling my mental illness it just goes to show that life is all peaks and troughs. This seismic change in my life has had a severe impact but I’m determined to face up to it. As I said, this is the first baby step back onto the good path.

-Nick

Things I learned from my QTS year

As I sit down to write this I must include a bit of a disclaimer: I’m not a wise old sage. I’m an NQT teaching in Thurrock, Essex. I’ve just finished my QTS year with Teach First and now that I have some energy back I’m feeling somewhat ready to share some of my experiences, what I’ve learnt from them, and how this could help new incoming teachers.

Of course each teacher experiences their first year differently. I want to say before I begin that I don’t intend for this to be the most relatable piece of writing. It comes directly from my own experiences most of all, some of which may be different to what you will experience in your first year. However, I will try to make each thing I say as widely-applicable as I can. Goodness, now I have to figure out where to start. It’s a good thing I’m better at planning lessons than I am at blog posts.

1) Nail the basics first

There’s a running joke that teachers don’t teach for the salary- and it’s true- we absolutely do not teach for the money. We teach because we want to make a difference for the children and communities we serve. This is of course wonderful, and I’ll talk about holding onto your ‘why’ later on but for now I just need to say that it’s easy to get swept up in doing too much at once. I wanted to make as big an impact as I could as soon as I could, and this led to me neglecting a couple of basic but essential aspects of my practice for some time. As much as you will want to make a difference, it’s important to keep your feet firmly on the ground in your trainee year. Listen to your mentor and any other support roles, reflect on your practice as often as possible, and stay focused on making sure you have nailed all the basics.

By the basics I mostly mean everything relating to the teaching standards. You need to be able to manage a room full of up to 30 children, maintaining a good climate for learning and one where children feel nurtured and supported. You need to be able to plan good lessons taking into consideration the needs of your children and what you know about their prior knowledge. You need to show you have high expectations and can back all of this up with evidence. I can’t say it any more, make sure you can teach before you start changing the world.

All this considered, this doesn’t mean you should robotically pursue the teaching standards. Your first year is all about figuring out the kind of teacher you are. It’s a time to read, observe, practice and reflect. You get to chart your own path in some ways, but just keep your feet on the ground and remember that there is plenty of time to make a wider impact; you just need to have secure foundations before you do this.

2) Understand your school’s behaviour policy

As part of my initial training I was immersed a lot in the work of Doug Lemov and I’d recommend you read his book ‘Teach Like a Champion’. It’s a real gem and contains practical guidance for all the core areas of teaching. One of his techniques is called the ‘Art of Consequence’. This essentially means that you must be prepared to follow through on what you say at all times. I can’t get behind this enough, you need to be prepared to back up your warnings. The best way to do this is to know the ins and outs of your school’s behaviour policy. Every school does it differently and it’s essential you know which consequences you can actually lay out. Of course you blend this in with opportunities to fix bad behaviour, but the key point is you can’t make threats that can’t be followed through. Children are highly perceptive and will soon figure you out. Better to be known for your consistent, determined approach to behaviour than your erratic, inconsistent one. As the classroom teacher of course you set the climate and ‘make the weather’ as Sir Jon Jones would say. There’s plenty of room for your individual approach to building a classroom environment. However, you must be prepared to present realistic consequences in line with your school’s behaviour policy.

3) Make a good impression

Before I get cracking on this one you need to buy ‘The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual’ by Omar Akbar. It perfectly encapsulates the do’s and dont’s in teaching and what I am about to say just echoes some parts of that book. Seriously, just stop reading this blog here and go pick up a copy of that book.

When I say make a good impression I absolutely don’t mean bend over backwards to make sure everyone likes you. Your main reason for being in the building is to provide an education to your pupils. In that building however will be practitioners with leagues more experience than you (that’s a good thing!) There will also be teaching assistants who may well know things about your children that you don’t, and cleaners who can make your whiteboard nice and shiny for you. If you are able to make a good impression in your school the good things will certainly come your way, not least because you will spend a lot of time with these people. Surely then it’s better to get along than not?

Another key part of making a good impression is getting to grips with your school’s “email culture”. Again, Omar Akbar’s book tackles this topic really well but I’m just going to offer up some experiences from my first year. I learned fairly quickly that when someone wants something done ASAP they might CC (carbon copy) a relevant- or sometimes even irrelevant- member of SLT into the email. This is because said member of SLT will see the email and therefore you can’t really shirk it. It’s an infuriating thing people do when they want something doing. Don’t be this person. This next one depends on the email policy of your school, but in mine there isn’t really a restriction on when emails can be sent. If you fall into this latter group, I wouldn’t advise sending out-of-hours emails unless your head is about to roll off your shoulders. Even then, consider the merits of super glue before you send the email. I’ve had people asking me to do things the next day when really the email could have waited until the next day. People will just appreciate you a lot more if you email during work hours.

4) Hide your whiteboard markers

That’s it. That’s the tip. They’ll get stolen otherwise. Keep them locked well away in Gringotts bank, vault 711.

5) Treasure the little moments

I hope I’m right in saying that you decided to go into teaching for either of the following two reasons:

1) You like children

2) You want to give children a good education

Of course those aren’t the only two reasons for becoming a teacher, but most teachers usually in some way point to one of those when asked why they signed up for a life of constant tiredness.

When you teach in a primary school you will see the same children every day for around 6 hours. That’s a lot of time to spend with the same bunch of children. Don’t get me wrong, there will be times when all you want to do is hide under your desk with a teddy and dream about the last holiday you had while your children ruin tables with paint. I forgot to put any sort of protective covering on my tables the first time I gave my Year 3 class time to paint. Let’s link this back to point 3; the cleaner did not have a good impression when she came into class after school on that day. Please don’t be like me, get some table covers. I go on a lot of tangents, I do apologise. On afternoons like paint-gate, I may have been stressed out of my mind but my children couldn’t wait to show me what they’d made. They will want to show you everything they make, because they’re children and they want to be validated. They’ll make you little gifts from home, too. I’ve got a box containing a growing collection of gifts from my first class. I made a point of keeping them; when I got tired and downbeat I would sometimes look at them and that helped me to remember my ‘why’. You will have so many special times with the little people in your classroom; please take the time to cherish those moments. I remember my first school trip to Colchester Castle. My class were absolutely mesmerised by the things they saw. We tried on Roman costumes, they laughed at me wearing a helmet, and they were able to bring to life what they had learned in class. Seeing how happy those experiences make your children might just be some of the fuel you need to power through the hard times. Unfortunately you will have some of those.

6) Look after yourself

I really don’t like getting all sombre. I’m quite a light-hearted person generally, so writing things like this doesn’t come easily. However, it’s an important thing to share.

Towards the end of the year I completely burned out. I was writing an essay, compiling evidence for my QTS portfolio, planning for home learning and trying to keep myself sane. Unfortunately the keeping myself sane part slowly slipped down the hierarchy of things in my life. Brace yourself for the sombre bit: teaching is quite a consuming job, and if you let it it can take over your life. I mean this in a few ways. During the home learning period brought about by Covid-19, I didn’t plan my time effectively and ended up rushing non-school commitments like my essay. This led to a negative outcome. I really burned out under the load of work I had to do, but truth be told there were things I could have done. First and foremost, I could have asked any of my support roles for some help. I didn’t. I let myself get worked up quietly, to the point where the work I was completing for university just wasn’t what it should have been. Not only that, but I was getting tired and irascible with those around me. I began to neglect exercise, let my diet slip, and slept less. All of that was totally avoidable if I’d have just asked for some help. Do NOT be ashamed of asking for help when things get too much. As I said, teaching can very quickly become consuming, and it’s okay to reach out and ask for pragmatic workarounds to make sure you have that vital time to look after yourself.

Something I did do right (yay) was I made sure to have at least one evening completely away from work during each week. I wouldn’t dare look at my laptop. That time would be for me to do whatever on Earth I wanted. At first I actually found this quite tricky because I knew there were things still on my to-do list. However, you’ll soon learn that you will never have an empty to-do list in teaching. There’s always something to be done, and I think that can lead to a mentality of being over-productive. By taking that one night off a week I was able to gradually escape that guilt and soon those evenings became a real anchor for me. You shouldn’t ever feel guilty for looking after yourself. As important as your job is, do not ever let anyone tell you it’s more important than your health. That has to be my biggest takeaway from this year. And sometimes the person telling you work comes first is yourself, so you need to watch out for that.

Okay so that’s me. There’s probably more to be said but those for me are the main things to keep an eye out for when you start your career in teaching. Of course it’s different for absolutely everyone so there may well be things I’ve written here that don’t apply to you whatsoever. I would heavily recommend that you set up a teacher Twitter account and start following some practitioners. A good place to start would definitely be Omar Akbar. I really can’t sing his praises enough. Teacher Twitter or “EduTwitter” has been a real source of inspiration and motivation for me. It’s given me access to the wisdom of teachers with far more experience, and that is very valuable.

I hope you love your training year. Despite the difficulties I faced, I truly loved mine. I was lucky to have a great class with wonderful children and parents. As nervous as you may be about going into teaching during the uncertain times we find ourselves in, please just remember that there will be upto 30 little people who can’t wait to meet you. They will be a source of laughter, joy, frustration, and so much more. Go in there and make a difference.

Here’s a list of books you might want to check out, too:

  • The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual, Omar Akbar.
  • Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov.
  • The Rosenshine Principles in Action, Tom Sherrington.
  • Making Every Lesson Count, Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby.
  • Live Well, Teach Well, Abigail Mann.

Staying sane during the Covid-19 outbreak


Staying indoors

We all find ourselves in a position more novel than the coronavirus we’re trying to avoid: We have to stay indoors as much as we can. We’ve never been in this position before! How on Earth do we go from beer gardens to the back gardens we haven’t tended to in months? Many of us are either having to work from home or have been furloughed, leading to a very odd existence at home. As a teacher I have been working from home for the most-part, but of course right now it is the Easter break, so there isn’t a lot of work to do. I’ve found myself falling out of my sleeping pattern almost straight away. I reckon when the apocalypse comes the first thing to go won’t be the dumb friend in your group, it’ll be the need to wake up at 6am. A lot of the things we do naturally rely on us being away from home, be that the gym, going out for food and drinks, looking at shops etc. Now that we can’t do that we are all now having to create pretty much brand new routines. That’s hard, it’s draining, and it’s very easy to give up on. We can still get snacks from the supermarket but there’s very few reasons to be motivated to do much else. Creating a positive home routine is going to be tricky, but I think there’s a lot of positives to be gained from having a crack at it. At the end of the day a good routine will look different for each of us, but I think it’s useful to know what you might do in the event that the external activities you rely on suddenly disappear. There’s value in creating routines and rewards that are more intrinsic and don’t rely on things you can’t really control. So in that spirit I’m going to share the things I’ve seen people doing, and some of the things I’ve been doing myself to stay sane during the Covid-19 outbreak. Enjoy!

Disorder isn’t always bad

As I said, a good routine looks different for each of us. You probably thought I was going to drone on about runs, yoga, meditation, and waking up at 7:30am every day. HAHA. I want you to actually read my blog all the way through.

It’s absolutely fine to lose it sometimes. My sleeping pattern has completely gone out of the window. I haven’t had a clue what I’m doing some days. I haven’t put together a blueprint in my head for what I’ve wanted to get done and that’s led to unplanned days with unplanned events. I couldn’t live like this all the time, I’m someone who likes having routines and clear goals pretty much every day. However, I think it’s quite important to let yourself become somewhat accustomed to dealing with uncertainty. This is a time where you might go from watching Netflix to being in a Zoom call with your friends until the early hours. There isn’t any order to the way we’re living our lives so the rules of old have started to disintegrate. What’s left is a lot of people pining for something to do, or for someone to talk to, at times that prior to Covid-19 just wouldn’t have worked. Remember the last time you could do a virtual pub quiz at 12 in the afternoon? Me neither.

I think it’s very valuable to build a routine during this time, and the rest of the blog will be focused on things you can add in to your routine. However I think it’s almost as important to acclimatise yourself to disorder. It’s absolutely fine that some days are just disorganised shambles, nobody has a clue what’s going on anyway. People on social media are having a field-day getting others to look at their perfectly-organised home routines, but that doesn’t mean you ought to do the same all the time. Let some things not work out, let nothing happen at all, and do away with the idea that you always need to be doing something. This is just the silly capitalist notion that you’re only of any value if you’re being productive.

A bit of exercise or a lot of exercise

I say a bit of or a lot of because it really depends on your relationship with exercise. If you don’t like exercise and you’re not interested go and skip ahead. I was quite stressed about exercise to begin with because I pretty much relied on my gym for everything. All the machines and contraptions are there. How do I cope without a squat rack?! Thankfully there’s been a LOT going into exercising in lockdown, probably because most of us don’t have access to gyms at home so it’s forced people to get quite creative. I started off mostly surveying what other people were doing, and from there I went and started experimenting with a few different things. I started off with the most crude home circuit imaginable, like I literally did it all from my bedroom. I used my bed for decline press-ups, a towel for rows (thanks Arnie!), and my carpet for literally everything else. From there I scoured videos and started to build my own workouts. I’ve mostly settled on High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) because there’s a tonne of them available from accessible sites like YouTube, you can add in or take away exercises, you can set your time and pace to something that works for you, and it’s a bloody good workout in little time. I’ll add some links to sites I’ve found useful below!

I’ve noticed people have been busying themselves with various challenges. One of my favourites is doing a handstand against a wall and trying to put a shirt on. Tried it, fell over, was good fun at the end of my workout! I think it’s very much about keeping it fun and enjoyable. That’s why it’s important to do either a little or a lot, whatever works for you. It’s important to think a little bit outside the box, too. I carried my shopping bags home from ALDI and turned that into a workout!

I’ve rambled on about the things I’ve been doing for exercise but I haven’t said why I’m doing it. It’s quite simple, exercise makes me feel good. I do just about enough to make myself feel better and it still leaves me wanting to do some again the next day. It took a bit of time to find what worked for me, but the internet is awash with resources for us to use. It’s suddenly become a part of my daily routine again and I enjoy it; I seek it out. That being said, some days I haven’t done anything at all and that’s perfectly fine too.

Reconnect with something you’ve stopped doing

We don’t get a lot of time these days to just sit and enjoy something for the sake of doing it. As I mentioned earlier, this could be sitting and doing the grand total of nothing. You aren’t obligated to pick up a hobby during the lockdown, not one bit. If you do fancy picking something up though, now could be the time to discover something new or reconnect with something you once enjoyed. I’m going to side with the latter because it’s more likely you’ll still have the necessary resources to start something up again. This isn’t really something I’ve done. I’ve taken the time to write this post for sure, but to be honest I’ve been doing the things I usually do at the weekend but every day now. I’ve read more, written slightly more, exercised more, watched more, and gamed more. If you miss something, why not have a go at it again? I say this because I find a lot of peace doing all the things I’ve mentioned above. Writing blogs I find very therapeutic. I almost free-write and then edit later because it feels so good just typing away! You don’t need to dive into anything head-first, just taking a bit of time with something you’ve lost could bring some much-needed peace of mind, some enjoyment, or just something other than wondering who killed Carole Baskin’s husband (we all know who did that).

Cook new food

Now this one I like, because food is something we all need so at some point you’re just going to have to cook! When the lockdown came, one of my first thoughts was about how I might just have the time and headspace now to cook some things I’ve been meaning to have a go at for a while. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but I’ve usually done it in bulk to save myself time. During the lockdown I’ve cooked more than once each day. It’s felt really good just to make fresh food on the day. I’ve used healthy ingredients for most meals, and I’ve really enjoyed making my own treat meals instead of ordering food in. It almost goes without saying, eating good food is probably one of the most important things for building a healthy routine for yourself. On many days, a good meal has been my only achievement and that’s felt absolutely fine; I can package off that day spent playing Doom Eternal as a complete success.

Cooking also has a bit of a mindful aspect to it. Chopping vegetables is quite relaxing, it helps you to focus your mind on something instead of perhaps withdrawing inside of yourself. Timing your cooking also has much the same effect; any chance to escape the overwhelming deluge of Covid-19 news is welcome to me. Have a go at cooking something, be it new or old.


Going beyond keeping occupied

Reading back through this, it seems I have placed a lot of focus on things we can do to escape. By escaping the news of all that’s happening with the coronavirus and the lockdown, we can enjoy moments that perhaps feel more normal to us. But nothing about this is normal; even having spare time to enjoy all these activities, that certainly isn’t normal! Life is one great big rush all the time, and the sudden halt is no doubt going to take its toll on people’s lives. I think that’s why an implicit theme of this blog is escaping- getting away from this surreal situation for a while. But more so we need to appreciate that doing things doesn’t mitigate the issues faced by so many of us. I’ve been very lucky to have friends, family and colleagues dropping in to check on me. So to wrap this one up, go and speak to your friends and ask them how they’re doing. Stay safe!

Nick

Routine and wellbeing in the new year

Christmas season: nobody has a fucking clue what’s going on. What colour is broccoli? Can you eat Shreddies with Gin? Is it true that 6am exists? Anything resembling a routine usually goes out of the window from roughly the 20th December until sometime in January. I threw out my usual bedtime, my diet, exercise, all of it. I did however manage to binge the Witcher and complete Red Dead Redemption 2. I even managed to find the Saint-Denis vampire AND unlock the UFO Easter egg. Those are pretty much my crowning achievements of the festive season. I do wish I was one of those people disciplined enough to maintain a routine throughout Christmas, but I whisper to myself “life is all about balance” before I nail too many bottles of beer and douse everything in cheese. I also had a bit of a downturn in the old mental health precisely because I let one too many routines go- the really important stuff like taking a breather for a minute or saying no to alcohol in favour of a walk or dare I say a trip to the gym. To me those are just two non-negotiables when it comes to my wellbeing. I like to sit and take stock of how I’m doing and I like endorphins. When I don’t do these things I start to get cranky, I get anxious and I stop being my normal self. I’ve started doing a couple of things to get myself back on track ready for the new year and because I’m a mental health blogger I’m about to give you a list. You fucking love lists and you know it.

A quick disclaimer before I start. I’m writing this list just as much for myself as I am for you. I am having a conversation with myself about what I need to do. It’s like I’m live-streaming the process of getting my shit together.

You ever used pepperoni as a quiche topping?

The definitive list of things to do to rescue your mind in the wake of new year madness

Step one: Get off your lazy arse

Go for a walk to the shop to buy more snacks (or beer), go for a run, go to the gym, do some squats in your living room and make your dog wonder what the buggery you’re doing. Just get up and do something, even if it’s a quick half an hour in-between two hangovers. I managed from the period of 20/12/2019 to yesterday a grand total of two gym sessions, two walks and a few games of aggravated pool. Not much at all, however I did drag myself to the iron paradise today for a grand total of 40 minutes. I achieved about as much as ice cube in a sauna would but it’s still been good to build that routine slowly. This leads me into my second point and this is where I stop mucking around

Step two: Start slowly

I’ll let you in on a bit of a secret: Star Wars actually forms a part of my worldview. Hear me out before you wet yourself! The Force always brings balance in the end, as if balance is the natural state of things. I think this applies to us. We need the right balance to keep us peaceful; go too far one way and you risk becoming stagnant. Go too far to the other and you risk burnout. Too many times I have tried jumping straight back into the ideal lifestyle I’ve had mapped out for myself and it’s proven too much. I’ve gone to the extreme straight away, not only did this make me burnout very quickly but I also began to compare myself to people who had perhaps enjoyed a more “successful” festive season than I. New year is the worst for this, when people share their success from the previous year and you sit contemplating after your first bottle of wine why your life is a sequence of blunder to blunder. Start slowly. One gym session a week, or two, whatever is realistic to you. Cut down the drinking in manageable bits. Take some time away from social media and reflect. Whatever you need to do to find your balance, you need to do it. This is the easiest time of year to compare yourself to others, but if you try to throw yourself in the deep end with a belly-full of mince pie, you’ll drown. Start off easy, and build strong foundations for the year.

Step three: Take a bit of time for yourself

This one caught me out big-time. I love spending time to myself doing things that enrich my life. Evidently part of that is spouting Star Wars philosophy! I love sitting around playing video games, listening to music, reflecting, daydreaming, you name it. Christmas can be stressful time for many of us I imagine because you’re having to whizz round seeing friends and family. You leave one and go to the next it seems, all the while you do start to feel a bit tired of it by the end don’t you? I suppose that’s part and parcel of Christmas, and truth be told it is wonderful seeing your loved-ones again and re-connecting. I live down in London nowadays and being able to reconnect with the people I love back up North is a treasured time. Just, your own headspace should be treasured too. It’s absolutely fine to end some conversations, cancel plans, cook some fresh food and just take some time for yourself. I meditated for the first time in about three weeks the other day and I could just tell I really needed the headspace and the downtime. I say this to myself just as much to anyone reading: check in with yourself and see how you’re doing.

Step four: Be kind to yourself

I had a moment this new year where I felt like I had moved backwards. A lot of this again came from comparing myself to other people, but I really felt like I’d somehow taken a step backwards. When I moved down here I started off in a housing situation which was far from ideal. I’d spent a lot of money to start a life down here and I felt that all I had to show for it was stress and a bit more belly than this time last year. I was more active last year, a bit thinner and more athletic. However, last year I wasn’t the teacher to 30 wonderful children. Last year I was in Oldham not starting my dream career. Thanks to the experiences I have had recently I know how resilient I am, what I can do to bring peace to my life and perhaps most importantly, I know what I need to do during tough times to ensure I remain healthy. I didn’t always achieve those things last year, but we mustn’t try to climb too many rungs on the ladder at once. Reflect on what you HAVE achieved, because there will be something. Reflect on what you’ve done, be proud of yourself for those things and then get planning what to do for 2020. Everyone achieves different things in different times and there isn’t a race to be anywhere in particular. Set your goals, respect your need for balance and be kind to yourself.

Those are some things I’m going to take with me into this new year. I hope you all have a year full of love, growth and success!

Nick.

Your story matters

I just received a sudden message from a good friend: they’ve posted a piece of writing online and wanted me to read it. It was a candid, heartfelt piece about mental health and it’s going to really impact those who come across it. They felt inspired by my writings to hammer out some thoughts and reflections on their own mental health. I thought yes, amazing! They’ve written something incredible about themselves and now they’re going to become a part of a community who will read what they have to say, reflect on it, feel inspired by it and then maybe be inspired to talk about themselves, too.

I’ve had this blog for around two years now and my activity has always been sporadic at best, I tend to write when I feel like it and I’m glad for that, personal writings should stem from organic feelings and not a sense of necessity. My posts have attracted discussion over time because they’ve been natural and sporadic; I’ve had messages from people expressing encouragement, giving lovely feedback, or sometimes taking a moment to share something about themselves with me too. Some people have gone on to write journals for themselves, have felt inspired to try a different approach to their mental health, or as is the case with my wonderful friend have scattered parts of their lives on the internet like the stardust they are.

I had no idea the kind of impact this blog would have on the people around me. It’s really quite surreal to think that friends have seen me share thoughts on my mental health and have decided to start jotting down their own thoughts, be that for themselves or for others to read. Bear with me on this one but I think our lives pan out like books, books that aren’t complete until the day we die. We can talk about the chapters we’ve already written, consider the one we are currently writing, and wonder about the ones yet to come. These stories- our personal stories- are what inspire others, that is by far the most important thing I have learned from running this blog. When you share your story you will undoubtedly inspire other people to start thinking about theirs too. Go, talk to someone you trust, write a blog, write for yourself, share an anonymous post, jot something down in the Notes app, just start talking about yourself.

Some tips for dealing with anxiety: 2019 edition

Hello it’s me again, it’s been five weeks since my last post and now I’m ready to throw some more words at you all. Last year I wrote a post sharing some things that I like to do to handle my anxiety and amazingly it benefitted a few people who got back to me and shared bits of their stories with me. It’s a year on from then thereabouts and I thought I’d put out an updated post with the things I’m now doing to alleviate my anxiety and panic attacks. I don’t expect these to really resonate with a lot of people because they’re my own personal philosophies and methods but if it so much as gets you thinking about how you deal with your anxiety then I’ll be happy.

Over the years I’ve come to embrace some different philosophies, but stoicism has remained close to my heart throughout the years. To those who know me you’ll probably think ‘what the fuck, he’s the least stoic person I know’ and I say well yes that’s true but I’m not talking about hiding my emotions, I’m talking more about how stoics approach anxiety. I won’t bog this down in philosophy, you can read some amazing books which I’ll put into a list at the end of this post. The thing that has stayed with me a lot going into 2019 is how I’ve tried to build some separation between myself and the things that are going on in my life, like work, finances and relationships etc. I’ve always been prone to letting each take over my life, so much so that I get overwhelmed quite easily and quite frequently. One thing I try to do now is to look at them for what they are- yes friendships have frayed, yes finances can be difficult and yes I am about to make a huge move into a very scary career where everything is uncertain, but I’ve come to see through little tests over time that when actually thrust into these situations I can handle myself pretty well. To give an example, anxiety is a bit like having a fear you’ll drown when you get put in water, that is until you actually get in the water and realise you’re not drowning at all but rather you’re floating. Taking the plunge is so incredibly hard when your anxiety is debilitating, but if you start as small as you need to and challenge yourself in manageable ways you’ll start to see that actually you can handle yourself. My first major challenge was going to the cinema, a guaranteed place for me to panic. I brought my dad along and I spent the entire thing wriggling in my seat, grabbing the arm rests, even occasionally grabbing my dad but I survived it and that really does create a lasting effect on how much power your anxiety has over you.

In recent times this has really been a big one for me but it’s also the most personal so I’m really not expecting anyone to read this and think ‘holy shit I’ve found the kryptonite for my anxiety.’ When I was doing my teacher training in London I sat to myself one night and thought about how my life had changed since graduating university in 2018 and I realised something pretty huge: had I have not made the decisions that I did in the preceding twelve months, I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle the pressures that came with being in London. In July 2018 I was given an opportunity to move to China and teach English for a year; I was elated at the time, I looked up every aspect of the city I was moving to in minute detail I was that excited. However, I started to panic as my departure date neared. How would I survive in a place so far from home where I might drown without my comforts being close to me? This thought circulated in my mind a lot to the point where I felt so anchored to little routines that I couldn’t envisage leaving home and surviving. I backed out, and for the next 10 months roughly I felt such a deep regret about my decision. Fast forward to London, I’m in a place where I’m without a lot of my home comforts: I don’t have a games console to relax with, I don’t have the familiarity of my room, life made the gym pretty much inaccessible and I couldn’t really eat in the way I usually would either. These all might seem rather trivial but a year ago even the thought of being without them, well, stopped me from embarking on what would have been an amazing journey. Yet I survived, dare I say I had an amazing time even though I had absolutely none of them. I made some absolutely incredible friends, enjoyed some wonderful experiences and come September I’ll be embarking on my journey as a teacher. The thought that occurred to me after that night in my room is maybe these things all happened for a reason: deciding not to go to China, having multiple derailments because I couldn’t quite get my gym routine perfected or organise my life the exact way I wanted to. Had I have not had those experiences, I wouldn’t have had the urgency to throw myself into the uncertainty of moving down to London. Despite all the fears and anxieties you have right now, maybe you’re exactly where you need to be on your journey. It’s okay to have those fears, it’s okay that your decisions haven’t quite made life go the way you want it to; it’s all absolutely fine because you’re right where you need to be and in the end, it’ll be okay. When I tell myself this it packs a real punch because I think of the experiences that I’ve had. I urge you to give it a go, think of how far you’ve come and what you’ve overcome and see yourself on a journey, not squashed underneath the challenges that face you right now.

I’ll come away from the abstract stuff now, if you’ve managed to make it this far! The things I’ve shared with you have definitely helped me in recent times and I hope I’ve put it across in a way that might help you to give them a go. If not, please do feel free to reach out for a chat. So this year I’ve given meditation a go beyond sitting on the carpet cross-legged for a few minutes waiting for the magic to happen (spoiler: I cramped up, still had mental illness, 0/10 for meditation). When I worked at Apple I downloaded this app called Ten Percent Happier, it’s one of a myriad of meditation apps available that come with various topics like mindfulness, sleep, activity, thoughtfulness, kindness and what not. I’ll be very honest, I jumped on the sleep section and haven’t really left it because my sleep is terrible, most of my panic comes at night in bed so logically I’m going to go for the sleep meditations. I’ve tried a lot of them and honestly guided meditation is a real winner, there have been many occasions where I’ve fallen asleep way before the end of a 15-minute meditation and this is coming from someone who takes an hour plus to fall asleep. Most sleep meditations encourage you to do as little active thinking as possible and instead focus on things you can feel and hear, like the weight of your body pressing down into the bed. I feel like this kind of meditation can be quite useful for someone with anxiety, especially when it comes out a lot at night. Sleep meditations can take you outside of your own head and because you’re thinking about what your senses are telling you, actually your time spent meditating can lead to some very peaceful, serene moments. When your mind is constantly racing, never underestimate how powerful just five minutes of peace feels.

Those are the main new things I’ve learned this year, I like this kind of practice because it’s nice to see how your relationship with your mind changes over time. The methods I have now are less challenge-oriented and definitely more holistic; in earlier times I used to set myself challenges, make sure I was constantly organised etc and while these definitely still have a place in my life I think it’s useful to dedicate some of your time and energy to finding some kind of peace in yourself, either through reflecting on what you have achieved so far, appreciating that life is a journey full of successes and defeats or taking some time each night to slip into quietness. You deserve peace and I hope these tips help you find it.

The books I really like:

Marcus Aurelius, the Meditations. (This book is almost always in my bag)
Seneca, On the Shortness of Life.
Andy Weir, The Martian. (odd choice I know but Mark Watney gets stranded on Mars and just takes it as it comes)
The Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness.

Some good apps and sites:

Ten percent happier
Calm
YouTube (It’s free…)
Podcasts

Change

Change is odd, isn’t it? I think there’s a biological inconsistency in humans and it really bugs me. We’re almost programmed to crave new experiences aren’t we? For example we like to meet new people, try new food, listen to new music, change jobs and relocate; we need change or else life gets stale and us along with it. However because we’re a deeply flawed species we also sometimes get really fucking scared of change, especially the kind that wrestles control over your life away from you. We hate having to make these leaps of faith because although we like change we only feel comfortable embracing it if it’s safe to do so. If change is thrust upon us we get all confused, enter Peacock mode and find a nice pit of sand to bury our heads under. All of this is bollocks if you’re the type of person who appreciates life’s tendency to disregard stability and I say you’re probably wasting your time reading the ramblings of a man currently sat on the train going to his new life in London trying to make some sense of what’s going on in his mind.

I’ve said to myself for years that I really need to be more in the moment, I always think about what I’m going to be doing in the future, that could be either the week ahead or a year from now. I like to keep things safe, to know exactly where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. I don’t like not having control over what’s going on around me so I craft routines and a life for myself that minimises risk. Recently though I’ve realised that trying to control your life is like trying to handcuff the ocean, you’ll spend so long trying and trying but life can’t be shackled. One day the universe may just throw you a curve ball but because you’ve put all your efforts into trying to keep life safe and comfortable you’re not at all equipped to deal with it or learn from it and that’s when your life becomes stagnant. The universe might even throw an opportunity your way but if you miss it because you’re too busy trying to arrest the Pacific then just imagine what you’ve missed. What mistakes will you not make? Who are the people that you won’t meet? What lessons will you not learn? As scary as change is, imagine what you might experience if you just let the universe do its thing with you. Someone much smarter than me said to me that we start out as a block of stone and everything we do in life chips away at our edifice until eventually we get an opportunity to stand back and look at what statue we’ve created. I don’t want to reach the end knowing I didn’t embrace change because I knew it would make me feel uncomfortable for a while. I’m going to get off this train, have a really good go at my new life and hopefully add some good strikes to my statue.

-Nick

Getting into meditation 101

It seems like there’s a meditation for just about everything: you can meditate to clear your mind and simplify your thoughts, or you can meditate to help yourself drift off to sleep at night if you find yourself restless. If you’re stressed or angry, you can meditate to soften your emotions to prevent an unwanted lash-out. If you want to you can even meditate during sex so you can feel more. Meditations can suit different needs and can be built into your routine in pretty much any way you want, you can meditate daily or weekly or just to stop yourself from putting out an angry Tweet about your ex. From conversations I’ve had though it seems a fair few people think meditation is something they can’t really get into, either because they don’t know how to do it or they lose focus halfway through etc etc; it’s almost as if there’s a meditation club that you can’t be a part of unless you possess the ability to induce yourself into a coma. Yeah sure for the majority of us the chances of being inducted into a Buddhist monastery to spend our days contemplating is pretty remote. Thing is though we don’t need to be pros to enjoy the benefits of meditation. I want to use this scribble to share a few things I’ve learned about meditation and how I use it in my day to day life.

I’ve tried a load of meditations, some guided and some just by myself. I can’t sit cross-legged in the “proper” way and my back is more akin to that of a hunched gamer than a well-postured meditator. I first tried meditating out of pure curiosity for it and I remember sitting in my room with my legs crossed and my back straight thinking ‘is meditation meant to make me feel uncomfortable?’ I’ve heard that if you do meditate in this way, your body eventually gets used to being in that position so I’m not knocking that kind of practice, it just didn’t work for me and it really put me off, that was until I found guided meditations. I downloaded the 10% happier app not long ago and accidentally dropped £89 on a years’ subscription so here I am now with a resource I may as well use. I perused the app and I tried a few sleep-oriented meditations, usually from the same person. I must admit I didn’t take too well to them at first because I usually prefer to sleep with the sound of a fan nearby, not the hushed voice of someone trying to get me to sleep. After a period of doing the same few guided meditations in rotation I started to notice that I was dropping off to sleep quicker than I usually do; more importantly, as I got more and more used to the meditations I noticed my mind was quietening down a lot more. I’ve always had a loud mind especially at night, I’m the type who makes up scenarios and plays back old memories over and over again. I also tend to get more anxious at night, so my mind gets louder and more negative when I turn the lights off. However as I followed these meditations I started to enjoy moments of quiet and those moments are really all we need to drift off. As you can probably tell I’m more of a sleep meditator, but to return to my earlier point you can see now that I found a clear purpose for meditating. When I was sat cross-legged in my room I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing or why, I was just breathing deeply and hoping for enlightenment to come. Now, I know exactly what I’m doing and why and that’s probably the biggest thing to bear in mind as you start to get into meditation: look at what’s out there and think ‘what am I hoping to achieve here?’ If you don’t you won’t have the motivation to focus and you’ll quickly stop trying.

I haven’t exactly branched out yet beyond meditating to help myself get to sleep but something I want to make a point of is how good apps are for helping us get into meditation. As I pointed out earlier, I fumbled my way into a paid subscription to 10% Happier and although it’s costly I would highly recommend paying a subscription fee to either that app or others like it, I’ll drop a list in at the end of this post. The good thing about these apps is that there’s a lot of guided meditations and even talks which tend to be categorised so if something interests you can just look around and try different things to see what you might chime with; I’m going to try morning meditations next because snooze is like opium to my sleepy head, and I found out that they exist just by looking around an app. That being said you can absolutely just go onto YouTube and look up different meditations rather than spending your money, I bet if you can think of a theme there’s probably a meditation for it somewhere on the internet.

Lastly you don’t need to be a pro to get something out of it, there’s many nights where I’ll finish my meditation and I won’t be asleep or even relaxed and that’s fine. Meditation isn’t something you need to get right all the time in order to get something out of it, at the end of the day it’s a way to train your mind and your mind isn’t always co-operative. If you put pressure on yourself to get results you’re not going to be focused on the meditation; one thing I would definitely say is just try to enjoy the moment rather than worrying about whether it’ll work or not. As we get tangled up in day to day busyness our minds can become noisy and congested but the good thing about meditation is that you can learn a few simple mindfulness techniques pretty quickly and even they can help quieten your mind and slow things right down. I think it’s so important to quieten your mind sometimes because in those moments that’s when you get better at sorting the important from the unimportant, like taking a few minutes to appreciate the greenery you never see because you’re too busy looking at social media or taking a second to text your mum back instead of thinking about the things you need to get done. I hope this post makes sense, I didn’t really plan this in any way because I just felt like posting something. I hope it helps anyone looking to get into meditation.

-Nick.

Here’s some of the apps and resources I’ve come across:
-10% Happier (I use this app)
-Calm
-Headspace
-YouTube
-Spotify

Illness and identity

When I first started having panic attacks, other than being confused by the unwelcome Acid Jazz party going on in my chest I always felt weakened. By weakened I don’t mean that I felt lethargic but that I thought I had let myself down by succumbing to the sensations I’d been feeling. As panic and anxiety started to appear at random, I thought more about how I was letting myself down and this developed into a feeling of ineptitude. After all, panic and anxiety started to hold me back from various things I wanted to do. I cancelled on friends, neglected to self-care, missed the gym/training, couldn’t complete work etc. It just about permeated every part of my life, robbing me of any say over the matter in the process. Because panic especially can come at random, I’ve always had a feeling of trepidation before I do things because I might well have a bad night beforehand and that’ll throw everything in the air. It’s been hard to accept that these things will happen, it’s been even harder to convince myself that panicking isn’t a black streak that runs over my personality. 

At University I tried pretty hard to live by a routine, especially in my final year. At some points I actually did and I found a strange sort of pride in sacrificing drinking to make sure I did my laundry on a Sunday. Wow. I sometimes had a fairly consistent gym routine, and occasionally I ventured to do my degree. However there were plenty of times where these all just didn’t happen, and I felt ashamed of myself every time. This happened a lot but I remember having a panic attack the night before I was supposed to go to the gym with my friend. I woke up the next morning feeling drained, stupid and still a little bit anxious. Whenever these things happened I would religiously compare myself to men who were whatever I wasn’t at the time: consistent, strong, in-control, and although I didn’t realise it at the time I thought these guys were good men and I wasn’t. Social media had a lot to do with this because there’s a stylised version of masculinity that goes around which has a lot to do with strength, control, aesthetics and such-like; I would say I got sucked into it. 

When asked what I want to do with my life, I’ll tell you I want two things: to do something that makes me happy and to be a good man. I’m quite aware of my identity but of course those things can and do change over time. Unfortunately I let myself get sucked into this idea of masculinity that prides a stoic level of control over yourself and your emotions and of being consistent in everything all the time. Just think of the Rock running around in a stringer shouting “HARDEST WORKER IN THE ROOM” and you’ve pretty much arrived at something that looks like the kind of shoes I wanted to fill for a while. Of course men like Dwayne Johnson are highly unique and equally they lead an extremely tight lifestyle. Nonetheless, there’s a definite attractiveness to that kind of lifestyle. I wish I could explain why I was and still am drawn to that lifestyle when I like food, beer and sleep too much to ever attain that level of physical monstrosity. That’s the thing though, there’s been a huge dissonance between the kind of man I wanted to be for a while and the kind of man that I should be considering my actual fucking personality. I don’t wear stringers. 

I do still question myself when I panic or get anxious. Sometimes I still feel ashamed when I have to practice rhythmic breathing to calm myself down, yet four hours later the same broken record is spinning on and on in my head. I still sometimes feel like I’m a bit of a failure when I can’t make it to the gym after a tough night and on those days I’ll look at myself in the mirror and think “my god you do not look good.” I definitely still get worked up after my 10th micro-examination of a text message trying to decipher whether someones had enough of me. However I try now to think along different lines when I put myself under the microscope. I wonder what good I did in the day, for myself or for someone else; I also think about what I have achieved instead of what I haven’t. The big one is that I spend a great deal more time now being aware of what my panic is making me think of myself. Yes it affects my daily life and it probably will for the rest of my life but I try now to not see it as something that takes away from me. Having this disorder made me much more aware of illness and wellbeing, and my experiences with it have helped me to develop my personality in ways that has helped to befriend and grow alongside some truly beautiful people. In turn actually these wonderful people, whether they’re still in my life or not, have helped me to appreciate the good that I do bring to the world in my own unique way. I think I’m still a way off yet but I’m finally starting to recognise that my illness does not make me less of a man.

Why do I write?

Over the last four or five years writing has come to occupy a pretty big space in my life. I write for different reasons: catharsis, reflection, to be creative, they’re probably the main ones. It’s not that I’m good at writing, I have my moments of flair for sure but I like it so much because I can express myself with as much or as little creative jazz as I like really. I want to dedicate this post to the why bit of this weird little corner of the internet that I occupy and why I like writing privately as well. My private writing hasn’t really come up yet so I’d like to talk about that a little bit as well.

I started writing as a hobby when I was 18. It definitely wasn’t for shits and giggles or to write erotic fan-fics, it was so I could document my mental illness. (no blog of mine is complete without reference to my constant companion, is it?) For real though I started writing so I could make what amounted to a diary of my experiences for therapeutic purposes. I started to write down details about my panic attacks, what I thought caused them, where they happened etc. Making regular diary posts about lying down and staring into the void for 20 minutes doesn’t sound like the sexiest introduction to writing does it? But that’s my origin story, take it or leave it. Anyway after some time of cataloguing my progress I started to find myself writing more and more about other things as well, for example I started to write entries about my general day along with the occasional empty musing about something I’d read or something that was happening in my life. At my job at the time I being the plucky youngster I was wanted to impress, so I had the idea of combining my interest in films with my new-found enjoyment of writing to make short snappy film reviews for the store. Unfortunately my time as a film critic was short-lived, I wrote three reviews and ultimately they got turned down because they were neither short nor snappy. But you can put your violins down because at this point I was writing for my own enjoyment and I was actually pretty good at it as well, I’d found a way to communicate my thoughts and feelings across in a meaningful way. I didn’t really realise it at the time but having that creative outlet laid a big cornerstone for my development going into my 20’s.

Writing has always been tied to me and my own well-being, be it directly in the form of therapeutic writing or indirectly through writing short stories or film reviews. I still have a journal that I add to infrequently; I used to bash myself for not adding to it daily but over time I realised that I don’t enjoy being a diarist because my life is comparable to a Sunday morning line dance with the occasional trip off the rails thrown in. I enjoy thrashing out ideas and in particular I enjoy taking some time to explore myself through this medium. My journal therefore has become an inconsistent, disorganised psychological profile with a smattering of entries about getting my shit together. This kind of free-form rambling is really important though because what it amounts to is your mind having an open honest conversation with itself without all the repetition and lack of meaning that comes when you just keep your thoughts locked away. When you keep your thoughts locked away it’s like you’re keeping the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in the box. You can’t make any bloody sense of the picture because you haven’t even found your corners to work from yet. Writing is what helps me to make sense of the things going on inside my mind. Writing also helps me to establish milestones in my journey. When you document something you give it a stamp of legitimacy that it couldn’t possibly have if it just remained tucked away at the back of your mind only to come out during an outpouring of emotion; that and you can look back on something you’ve written- a plan, perhaps? A reflection on where you’re at emotionally or mentally at a given point in time? When you write it’s as if you leave a print of yourself on the page, the words you throw down blend to create a picture of your soul. You really are a work of art, you know? Can you tell I’m bitter about the fact I can’t draw or paint? Writing has helped me keep track of myself and I guess a lot of my blog posts have contained this kind of self-reflective style of mine.

That leads me pretty nicely into the blog. The blog is my chance to utilise my introspective nature to do some good for those around me. I chose to blog because 1) I can use my proclivity for writing to try to do some good for those around me and 2) I’m an introvert, doing my bit from the comfort of my own room is fucking perfect. I’m just an over-sharer with access to the internet. I started the blog mostly with the intention of sharing parts of my story and to add my perspective on aspects of mental health. I didn’t really realise people would actually come to read what I have to write and the feedback that started to come my way and still finds its way to me is absolutely mind-blowing. To think me documenting my experiences with mental illness whilst sharing some ways in which I try to improve my overall wellbeing would actually impact other people is absolutely crazy to me, yet this weird little blog of mine has started to make an impact. A pretty huge milestone in this journey was being given the incredible opportunity to talk in front of a rather large number of fellow students about my experience with anxiety at University. The feedback from the talk was instantaneous, people approached me afterwards to share their own experiences and that really cemented for me the value of fostering conversation around mental health and mental illness. So I write these posts because I enjoy writing about mental health but mostly I write these posts because I hope that the people who take the time to read what I have to say can take something away from all of this.

So that, in a nutshell, is why I write. Sometimes I write with a clear purpose, sometimes I don’t. I’ve written this on the back of several recent journal entries because I’m experiencing some weird changes of late, some good and some not so good, and I thought “I could turn this into a blog post.” I really didn’t have a plan with this one, I’ve just sat down and free-written for a while. I suppose you could say this has been cathartic in its own way. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading!

-Nick