I can’t claim to know very much about mental illness, or the vast majority of physical illnesses too, but boy can I list off some of the side effects of them. My best friend Emily is studying the psychological effects of a diagnosis on a patient, and whether the physical pain of cancer outweighs the mental pain involved, which I think is so interesting, partly cause it’s different for everyone.
Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. Obviously everyone has different ways of coping with physical and mental illness, but I just wanted to rattle off a quick list about what helps me. You can either see it as wildly inaccurate and irrelevant, or like a crash course in everyday self help, depending on what works for you.
One great thing about diagnosis is that it really does help you find joy, or at least contentment, in the everyday, which is probably one of the biggest gifts any of us could ever ask for, I think. I’m addressing this to the sufferers of any illness, or anyone just undergoing stress and general disquiet in their life, because it’s far too short to not take time out for yourself and relax. So without even more ado, here are my coping mechanisms:
1. Cardiff University
An obvious one is university. Coming back here has made the hugest difference to the last few months of my life, which before, were just hospital-filled. And I’m lucky to have a diverse enough course that I can keep myself busy by reading all sorts of books and genuinely calling it ‘working’. Obviously we all moan. We’re students, we’re busy, that’s what we do. Some of us are productive and some of us manage to stress about all the things we need to do whilst simultaneously finding ways to put them off. But when you’re feeling particularly down about your course, just remember all the stress you went through to get here, all the personal statement drafts, the uni open days, the terror about making friends. Just breathe. You made it, you’re in. And this course is gonna get you where you want to be. Isn’t that something to be excited about?
With uni comes opportunities. I’ve been looking for volunteering opportunities since I got here, and I’ve finally found one I’m passionate and excited enough about to pursue. Cardiff Marrow are an amazing organisation of students who sign people up to the Anthony Nolan register and fundraise in the meantime. For me, nothing beats that happy glow of watching someone that I’ve cornered on the way back from netball practice spit in a tube (creepy, I know) and knowing that I could’ve just helped save a life. Lots of universities have their own Marrow groups, but check out Cardiff’s here. It feels good to get out the house, meet like-minded people and think about things that aren’t your own worries.
3. Colouring Books
Recently I’ve started colouring. I got diagnosed and I had my hideously infamous egg harvest and then within a week our friend Vicky had bought me a colouring book for adults. I hated colouring in school. GCSE Geography lessons almost always ended in colouring in some kind of landscape when the teacher had run out of other tasks for us, and I got very easily bored. Then recently, I did some colouring with Matt’s niece, who is three, and has an excuse to enjoy colouring, and surprisingly found it pretty therapeutic. And that’s all there is to it. They’re available in your local supermarket, filled with different themes and pretty patterns (mine’s a rainforest one), and they’ve been reviewed as being great for soothing stress and anxiety. They’re not for everyone, sometimes I get so frustrated at the intricacies of the patterns that I give up, but it’s a good hobby for a spare five minutes, or to wind down before bed.
4. Time alone
Really back to basics now with some me-time. I think people really underestimate how enjoyable it is to spend some time alone after a stressful day. After a hospital appointment, I love seeing other people, I love to have my mind taken off it all, but day to day, I quite enjoy just being able to manage my time without having to think about what anyone else wants. My housemate Harleen and I are often the only ones at home on and off during the day, and we just get a lot of work done that way. I also love an evening bath, a walk, I burn a lot of candles (if anyone was wondering what to get me for Christmas), and have a read or bit of TV before bed, and then I’m refreshed, my thoughts are gathered and I’m looking forward to spending time with everyone again. Try it. It is underrated. I’m not just weird, I promise.
5. A Lack of Needle-Phobia
Obviously this one’s more personal, but needles have helped me cope. Hear me out on this one. I was pretty fidgety for my first blood test back in June. I now have them at least once a week, as well as regular cannulas in my hands for hours at a time, and God, there is nothing to help you get over a phobia like having it shoved literally into your arm this often. Never will I enjoy getting stabbed, but never will I be afraid of it again, and I think that’s another pretty useful life skill. It would be dumb, also, not to mention all the amazing nurses who have held my hand through difficult needle insertions, and told me about their home lives or what they were watching on Netflix to distract me. Credit to them for excellent multitasking skills.
6. Orange Is The New Black
My interest in OITNB started with my second blood transfusion back in the summer. I was warned that it was going to be a long day, and so I hunted for a new series to get stuck into. I wouldn’t call it an obsession, frankly sometimes I don’t even see the hype surrounding it, but I quite like a bit of easily accessible mindless TV, and there’s nothing like an over-hyped prison drama to remind you that, you know, life could be worse. Pick your own series to dip into. Grey’s Anatomy is my personal favourite for people who really want something meaty to get involved with.
Just to branch slightly off the last one, I’ve become a bit of a smoothie convert. I’m sure I’ll stay in the minority here, because I put spinach in mine, out of choice. Not sure I like myself either anymore, really. But when you’re having an unhealthy day, they’re a good pick me up just to at least make yourself feel better in your own skin, and get all your nutrients. They don’t have to look like swamp water. Put blueberries, half a banana and some strawberries in one and I promise it’ll be mouthwatering. And healthy. I’m not gonna pretend they fill me up for hours and replace my breakfast (like who am I kidding, I need carbs with every meal just to make it through the next few hours), but they do fill a small void that helps you stop reaching for the biscuits.
This is something that I acknowledge that most students and busy workers hate, so, again, hear me out. I previously hated cooking, it was always just another chore to force down another bowl of pasta before pre drinks, but it’s become pretty therapeutic, especially now I’m watching what I eat more than ever. This year I’ve tried some pretty simple recipes, but they’ve ended up being healthy staples. I’ve made lunchtime tarts to eat with salad, done things with pasta that doesn’t only involve tipping a bit of Lidl tomato sauce onto it, and made my first ever roast. You know those cookbooks that everyone gives you before you head off to uni, and you never even open them? Use them, guys, they’re seriously good, and have things in there you’d never have thought of.
I don’t want to say too much about this, because it’s an obvious one, and because I’ll get emotional. You read my Dad’s post last time, you know what they’re like. They’re a pretty great bunch. So thanks to my Dad who plays I-Spy with me in the waiting rooms, even when I think I don’t want to, to my Mum who drove all the way here just to make sure things got done properly during my first transfusion away from home, to Izzy for knowing how to make almost any mundane hospital room prop funny, to my Godmother who sends me sweet things in the post, to Lydia who brought home advent calendars for us all, ‘just because’. To my aunties who bring round chocolate and hand cream and text me just to check on how I’m doing, to Emily and Matt and the house girls and everyone else who also texts and nags to see how everything’s going before, during and after appointments. Nothing is more important than family (another useful life realisation).
It would also be silly not to mention this blog, and how therapeutic it’s been writing about all of this. Obviously I wouldn’t still be doing it if it wasn’t for the amazing reaction I’ve had from you guys (you’re the best), but I also keep a diary just to look back at how I’ve been feeling throughout all this, and it does help, on some level that I can’t really explain. But if I’m having a down day I can look back at some things, like the entry when I found out I could come back to Cardiff, which just reads “I’m happy, elated, I’m walking on sunshine”. Documenting stuff just proves that there are always bad days that get put behind you, and good days ahead.
Alice, I’m reading your blog from the very beginning, slowly so I can take in everything you say. Your writing is captivating, your attitude to life and illness is remarkable. I wish I could put into writing how much I admire you! (But I’m so bad with words unlike you!)
There needs to be more people with your attitude and outlook in the world! Keep going.
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