In my efforts to keep a family afloat as a single parent, I’ve often despaired at how convoluted and impersonal dealing with HMRC can be. Whether it’s a change to credits or the wrong tax code on your payslip, it’s an alien language. And it’s particularly challenging when you are anxious as all hell because the way the conversation goes will have such impact. You’re scared and confused, which is not a powerful position from which to advocate for your needs, especially when your executive function is prone to go offline rapidly in these conditions.
For those of us who don’t have the luxury of an accountant, a loved one who handles our finances, or the time to study it all ourselves, changes to taxation and credits are a real headache. Combine this with my (eroding) fear of appearing stupid or uninformed about anything, ever, ever, and soon you have an ostrich with her head stuck in the sand and just enough money to cover her now rather vulnerable arse. The final feather on the top is some needless shame about not earning very much at this single-parent, bereaved-by-suicide, trying-to-stay-afloat juncture of my life. Not attractive. Not the done thing to talk about earnings. Hide. Shush. Mask it away.
I’d often wished for a mentor to hold my hand through some of these processes using plain language, so that I could be sure I was making the best use of my hard-won income, and not being duped or ignored for any tax breaks or entitlements. And today I found it in a website.
Just have a read of the opening paragraph of The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group and feel the knots in your neck release a little. Here is a group of smart, just, proactive people who are making a difference to earners in this situation right now. They’re also campaigning for greater clarity in taxation. Imagine that – a taxation system that truly helps those who help themselves.
This would be a good moment to say thank you to all the volunteers and pro bono folk there who made this work, especially given that it’s Volunteers’ Week. If anyone who helped make this happen is reading – thank you from me, my children, and the people I work with who will be using these resources.
Show a “problem eater” some love this Eating Disorders Awareness Week
This National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (25th February – 3rd March 2019) is focussed on two of my favourite subjects – self-acceptance, and smashing stereotypes. With this in mind, I’m writing today about a less well-known eating disorder that probably dominated my early life, back in the days when we didn’t have all these disorders and instead we “Just Got On With It” (“It” largely being feeling horrible and lonely.)
ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) often centres around difficulties with the sensory or mechanical processes of eating, rather than difficulties with how food affects emotions or body shape – and it’s common in autistic people.
“Stereotypes would have you believe that eating disorders are not serious illnesses and they always take the same form. These stereotypes are dangerous, they discourage people from seeking help… and it makes them harder to be spotted by the sufferer or a loved one.”
I was a “problem eater” until my mid-twenties. A highly restricted repertoire of foods I could stomach, combined with difficulty swallowing and a tendency to choke, made mealtimes a several-times-a-day flashpoint. I could count on both hands the few things I could swallow comfortably, and I had to chew for a long time before anything would actually go down. Food went “the wrong way” constantly, especially if I disliked it and couldn’t bear it to touch my tongue. My plate would always be full long after everyone else’s was empty. I was thin, weak, and tired.
How this started, I couldn’t say. What I can say is that my difficulty eating was never about my body image, weight, or calorie intake. The ravages of anorexia and bulimia were not, and never would be, known to me, and for this I am grateful. Nevertheless, I soon gained some labels of my own – fussy, picky – a problem eater. What was happening for me was a generalised fear of ingesting food, and it comprised of:
sensory difficulties with the textures, smells, tastes, and even sounds of food
motor difficulties with chewing and swallowing
the pressures of eating at the same time as socialising/talking
food becoming an emotive, loaded subject, and deepening the cycle
I quickly learned that “problem eating” was a source of embarrassment and shame. After all, what do families and friends do when they gather together, to celebrate or just to catch up? They feast; they sit in a circle and offer their best food to each other, they share it out, appreciate it, congratulate the cook. Everyone feels warm and fuzzy and full. But for me aged 10, a typical gathering would go like this:
Arrive at the event as full as possible and fill your pockets with snacks beforehand if you can
Try to get a seat at the edge of the table so you can sneak away
Find ways to hide/distract from the fact that you’re not eating – talk too much, bring a book to the table, get someone else started on their favourite subject
Hang around and help clear up so you can grab leftovers you can tolerate while no-one’s looking
Despite all my careful planning, the inevitable moment would come. Someone would call attention to my not eating, and fear would strike me cold, especially if it came with admonishments for my parents. “Why is she not eating? I’ve gone to all that trouble…” And suddenly, with a red face and blood whooshing in my ears, my still-full plate would sit there between us, silently signifying my struggle, my hunger, my shame.
The connotations of not being a “good eater” are harsh: Ungrateful. Spoilt. Rude. All the things I was not. And parents of “problem eaters” don’t fare much better: Indulgent. Uninformed. Neglectful. And yet, my throat simply wouldn’t swallow more than once per effortful minute, however much I willed it to. Other times, I could get food in, but then it wouldn’t stay down. All these strong emotions and social codes only served to compound the initial difficulty with psychosomatic anxiety – and before long, it became an insurmountable, impenetrable, conundrum that no-one could fathom. In the meantime, I was still hungry all day and not sure what to do about it.
As a young adult, I had more agency, and at first, I simply avoided any gathering that might involve food. I’d abandon a lovely day out with a white lie about having promised to eat elsewhere (the promise actually being to eat by myself), or I’d arrange meet-ups between mealtimes. But I was growing up and finding my own way, and the world was changing, too. Cooking programmes were coming into vogue, and I found I was curious about trying foods I’d never heard of before. Then I realised – this was my opportunity to completely set my own menu, times, and eating environment.
And so it was that slowly, carefully, I expanded my repertoire. I started exploring recipe books and trying out things that were just a little different from my usual fare. The important thing was, the shame and emotion were taken out of eating. Alone, I could eat at my own speed. I could read at the table or watch TV to make consuming less… all-consuming. I didn’t have to perform the epiglottal aerobics of speaking, swallowing, and breathing at the same time. And if I couldn’t eat something, no-one would be offended or outraged (except, perhaps, my food budget.) It wasn’t quick – it probably took about 3 years – but it worked. The total, self-caring agency was the key ingredient of my success. I was worth good food, and I was worth the investment it took to access good food. So what if it took me a little longer?
Nowadays I have somewhat of the opposite problem – I love food, and there’s almost nothing that I don’t like to eat! The key thing is I have full agency about what and how I eat. I enjoy going out to eat with friends – but my plate is often left half-full, maybe because we’ve been talking a lot, or because something was hard to swallow. And if I’m meeting someone for the first time in a new place, I’d rather food was off the table completely. It’s not because I’m ashamed (well, perhaps just a tiny bit, still.) It’s because I now have four decades of evidence that I struggle in that scenario. And that’s plenty enough evidence for me to choose what works. It’s even become an early-warning system for me. If I’m struggling to swallow my food, it means I’m becoming overwhelmed, and need to slow down in other areas, too. I quite literally can’t process anything for a while.
These experiences have served me incredibly well as a parent to two people who also struggle with food. There’s no denying that the challenge of feeding such very different people can be frustrating. The bottom line? I look for every opportunity to diffuse unnecessary emotion around our mealtimes. If someone doesn’t want to eat something, that’s all that’s actually happening in that moment. No need to pile on messages of shame and blame. No need to wring my hands about being a less-than-perfect parent.
Food and health go hand in hand. To make that a healthy relationship, we should challenge ideal “meal images” just as we challenge ideal body images. Meals are like clothes – one size does not fit all. Here are some of the ways I apply this to make mealtimes at home less stressful:
Make peace with a limited repertoire. So your son will only eat peas and no other vegetable? So what?! Peas are excellent. Bring on ALL the peas.
Ensure that every meal has at least two things that each person can happily eat so that no-one ever leaves a meal feeling hungry – even if it makes for some unusual pairings. Who says you can’t have bread with a stir-fry, or corn-on-the-cob with a roast?
Serve food so that everyone can choose the components they like; keep things separate on the plate, or serve up buffet-style in the kitchen straight from the cooker – no serving bowls to wash up!
Don’t compare eaters. Don’t single someone who has no trouble eating as good or “better” than a person who is struggling. Shame is a terrible motivator.
Put a weekly meal plan somewhere visible so that everyone can see what’s coming tonight. Better still, let them have a day of the week where they set the menu. What they actually want might surprise you!
This doesn’t mean that trying new things is completely off-menu. Helping people discover food is enriching. However, this works best away from the pressured environment of a mealtime (particularly a big family event, or eating out.) Here are some things that have helped people I care for to expand their preferences:
Cooking a really special meal just for myself or a guest, asking the kids to help me prepare and serve it, and casually offering, just once, a taste or a dip of something new – without any pressure to join in.
Learning about the “science” of food preparation. Why is a roasted potato so different from a raw potato? Observe the differences – with no pressure to taste them.
Appeal to logic by explaining the elements of food and how they help the body. Learning about iron, haemoglobin and the funny shape of red blood cells is much more engaging (and logical) than “because it’s good for you.”
Finally, if you care for someone who is a “problem eater,” recognise that much of the problem might actually be… yours. What preconceptions and anxieties are you bringing to their difficulties? How is your fear of being judged by others clouding the issue? Could a fundamental thing like difficulty swallowing be what’s really going on?
Nutrition and health/mental health are so intricately connected. Let’s make a pledge this week to educate ourselves about both – and let’s start by showing a “problem eater” some love and understanding. (Especially if that person is you.)
I’m on my fourth day at home with not-quite-flu and thought I’d capture a quick post about how complicated self-care can be. I’ll have forgotten once I’m better. Here’s why…
Being able to tune in to what your body is telling you is not the same for everyone. I find it very hard to understand the messages my body sends me (and working to improve this has given great results.)
Let’s take a very simple example. It’s embarrassing to admit, but sometimes I can feel very irritated and not myself for a couple of hours. Eventually I realise that what’s at the bottom of this is that I actually need a trip to the loo. Yes, I just admitted that publicly. When I worked that simple thing out, it made a huge difference. This is especially true in an unfamiliar environment where the loo might be as yet unmapped. Like a baby learning object permanence, if I don’t see a loo, then the concept of loo has vanished from the universe, and I’m left careering aimlessly through corridors like Danny in The Shining towards heaven only knows what.
I’m exaggerating for effect, but it’s a good illustration of how taking care of basic needs can help to manage stress. Learning to factor in loo breaks has made a huge difference to my overall anxiety levels. I can’t rely on my body to send me signals in a timely way that connects to the appropriate action, and so I have to build in exo-reminders.
When I think back to my childhood, I worried about what my body was doing a lot. If I detected something in me was off-kilter, I needed advice about it. It probably looked like hypochondria, but was actually requests for information. Why have two of my toes turned a deathly green? What’s making me wheeze all of a sudden? How is my nose producing all of this… You get the idea. It helps that human biology is fascinating, and miraculous. All children have this natural curiosity about themselves. I suppose some are just better able to connect with the changing weather inside their own system, and adapt to it naturally, whereas others are left hot and bothered without making the connection that their experience would improve considerably if they just took their jumper off.
So here I am, a grown adult, in bed surrounded by lemon drinks and tissue boxes. It took me a full 36 hours to discern that the reason everything in life had suddenly become ten times more difficult was simply that I had a cold (followed by a little period of wondering whether it’s socially acceptable to have a cold and what the correct response might be, but that’s a whole other can of Lucozade.)
However old and wise I get, I’m still alarmed when my body misbehaves, and it takes me a while to connect the dots.
If this resonates with you, my advice is:
Learn how human bodies work. You’d be amazed how much something like a basic understanding of the sympathetic nervous system can help you in the throes of a panic attack.
Check in with yourself often, using an external reminder if necessary. Are any of your systems misfiring? Is anything painful or uncomfortable?
Forgive yourself, over and over and over. It’s really bloody irritating to need this level of micromanagement of your own body. Getting annoyed with yourself won’t help. You’re a warrior for keeping at it every day.
I’d usually link to resources to help readers, but will save that for another day when I’m feeling better. For now, I’m noticing my sore throat and fuzzy head, and going back to sleep.
Today, a friend messaged me from their mid-morning Monday desk to say that they were struggling. (This friend thinks they might be on the spectrum and is wrestling with whether that warrants further enquiry. People in this situation seek me out often, and I actively welcome it.)
Their pleasingly logical plea for help came with an insistence for me not to worry about them; however, if I could send them a couple of tips to get through their messy, stressy Monday, they’d appreciate it… sorry to have troubled me… don’t worry if I don’t have time… and other adorable, relatable minimisings.
I shared a couple of quick fix check-ins. The Pomodoro technique. The sensory sweep. (I’ll write about these in time – links will appear across these posts before too long.) However I sensed something more fundamental in their offloading.
Their stress arose from a situation in which other people were not making much sense. And when you’re prone to thinking you’re defective, it’s all too easy to assume that any deficit of understanding lies squarely with you.
So I offered this: Consider the possibility that other people aren’t making sense in this situation. Just because you’re having difficulty understanding something, it doesn’t automatically follow that it’s been properly explained and the fault lies with you, the receiver. You are entitled to seek clarification. You are allowed to ask the same question twice.
“The beginning of wisdom, I believe, is our ability to accept an inherent messiness in our explanation of what’s going on.”
Sometimes, no-one has the first idea what they’re doing. Sometimes a whole business meeting can go by with nothing having been achieved or agreed on at all beyond a little power-wrestling or grandstanding.
Yes, it’s taken me twenty five years of working life to fully understand this. When someone is only making 10% of sense, my sense-seeking mind has a tendency to leap forward 90% to make up the shortfall of understanding between us. Sometimes this speeds things up; sometimes, it develops ideas. Sometimes though, it misfires and annoys them – either because I’ve drawn the wrong conclusion, or frankly, been a smart-arse.
I’ve learned (or rather, am learning) to quiet that internal voice that insists on perfect sense from others. It’s not my job to restore everyone else’s thoughts and actions to order, and it’s an arrogance to try. There are times when, if nothing much is at stake, the quickest route to sanity is accepting that an exchange simply made no sense to anyone, and letting that pass by unremarked. And of course, a pleasing side-effect of letting other people not make sense is that you give that permission to yourself, too. What a relief.
My correspondent today was twenty years my junior. I hope they went back into their day feeling a little less wrong-footed.
Later that evening on the tube (I’m in town for tomorrow’s National Suicide Prevention Alliance conference) I found myself propped against an open window between carriages. Each time the train set off, tepid air gusted through, carrying chatter and scent from all the carriages ahead. At first I winced and dodged it, fringe whipping at my face, eyes stinging as I turned this way and that.
Soon I found the right angle. With my face pressed full into the breeze, the warm scent of working machinery and discarded coffee cups pushed my hair away from my closed eyelids; a temporary figurehead in winter coat and messenger bag. I felt the pressure give way as we all surged through the tunnel, together temporarily on our many missions, carrying tiny payloads of potential to our myriad destinations.
It’s a wonder, really, that anything synchronises at all. Don’t exhaust yourself trying bring it all to order. Save your energy for those times when directing the flow could make a difference.
My son asked me recently, “How do you make a conversation keep happening?”
A few suggestions for topics like the weather, or strategies like taking turns, didn’t cut it. He was searching for what gives momentum to a connection; the mysterious essence that makes others want to engage with you in that lovely upward spiral of mutual interest.
Of course, I couldn’t give an answer that was likely to work, much less teach him the formulae he hoped might exist.
Social impairment (or, as many prefer, social difference) is a feature of autism, and despite having a very busy life full of people who care about me, I can’t deny that it’s something I have to work at. I can forget the simple things that others need in order to feel valued, which can bring on shame and inadequacy, often followed by massively over-compensating in order to soothe any hurt feelings (including my own). So I could hear the tremor in his question, and badly wanted to help.
I’ve been on the lookout for resources I can share with him, rather than passing on my wonky strategies of masking, people-pleasing, or isolating.
This month, Action for Happiness are offering a “Friendly February” calendar, with a suggested activity each day to help build connection. They all look nicely achievable. And much as I hate taking instruction, or admitting I need help… some of these hadn’t occurred to me. Time to put on my humility pants and take some good advice.
I could pretend that we’re doing it for my son, but hell, I need to get better at this stuff, too.
So it’s going on the fridge. Let’s see who scores a full house, and where it takes us…