#experienceoctober2016

experience-october
#experienceoctober2016 || raeritchie.com

#experienceoctober2016 begins on Saturday 1st October!

Over the last couple of months I’ve really enjoyed taking part in the #augustbreak2016 and #breatheseptember2016 photograph challenges on Instagram.  I loved them so much that they inspired me to create my own challenge – and the idea of ‘experience October’ was born!

October is a month of enormous change.  In the northern hemisphere, the nights are drawing in and the days are getting cooler.  The world is turning and so are the leaves.  Autumn has its blaze of glory as winter begins to edge its way in.

October is also a month of festivals and celebration, from harvest to Hallowe’en.  We give thanks for a fruitful summer and leave pumpkins by the door.  It’s candles and blankets and fire; candy and toffee apples and hot soup.  It’s crafting hygge in our homes (even if we can’t get the word out of our mouths!).

October is all this and more.  There is so much to do, so much to see, so much to share – in short, so much to experience.  The purpose of #experienceoctober2016 is to provide prompts that encourage you to look around the world you inhabit and fully embrace the wonderful month that we are heading into.

It’s easy to take part – simply post your pictures and use the hashtag #experienceoctober2016 to allow others to find them.  You can also tag me, @rae_ritchie_, if you like.  You can tag and share with anyone you know who may enjoy the journey too.

You can join in every day, or only on some days, or as the mood takes you.  There are no rules, only gentle encouragement to take the time to truly experience October.

 

 

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A letter to my eighteen year old self at the start of the new university year: mental health, hindsight & regret

A letter to my eighteen year old self at the start of the new university year || raeritchie.com

My dearest, darling Rae,

The new university year has begun and there is talk of it everywhere – on the news, in the papers, next to me in the coffee shop.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been sixteen years since we were in that position, gabbing away to our friends in Fusion café about when we were starting, what we were packing and whether the fuel strike would be over in time for our parents to fill up their cars for the journey there.  There was no way we carry all our stuff on the train!

We took so much with us but still seemed to be missing essentials.  No trainers, no laptop, no printer.  Those first few weeks and months were a steep learning curve.

We didn’t even know what Freshers’ Week was and it took a while to catch on that it was something we were actually participating in.  So clueless! 

Now I taunt myself that we could have, should have, done more research about both the specific institution we chose and university life more generally, but then we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

One thing we did know was that we wanted to do history.  We felt so sure about this at the time, but I suspect English Literature would have been a better choice for our interests and aptitudes.  History seemed like a safe option, one that earned us approval from the sources that we mistakenly wanted to impress.

Oh you poor love, it’s only now I’m realising how much damage was done to our still pretty naïve schoolgirl self.  We’ll be living with the repercussions, consciously or subconsciously, for years to come.

History also seemed to offer me a straightforward route to a career: we’ll be a historian!

It gave us a convenient focus that felt steady and secure rather than having to face the tumult of exploring other possibilities and desires. 

I’m bound to have an inkling of regret about our dogged pursuing of this path seeing as we’ve recently walked away from all that investment of time and energy to become a writer.  Maybe we could have been ahead of where we are now if we had listened more closely to the voices that whispered quietly in our ear; instead we chose to drown them out.

‘Why didn’t you go into publishing?’ a friend asked a short while ago, seeing my passion about magazines and the printed word.  ‘I don’t know,’ came my reply.  ‘I just don’t know.’

Who knows what would have been if we had taken a different road?

Hindsight is a wonderful stick to beat oneself with. 

At the time we made the best choice we could considering the overwhelming sensation when a fresher was of feeling besieged by terror.  We were unmoored and in freefall, uncertain of ourself, of what to do and how to be.

Remember that weird drowning sensation we felt in between the first floor library stacks?  It was a panic attack. 

Remember fleeing the hall dining room on a Wednesday lunchtime, bumping into Charlotte from downstairs with hot tears stinging our face?  That too, a classic panic attack but we don’t know of such things back then.

Looking back, my recollections are peppered with perhaps, maybes, what ifs.  Perhaps we should have gone with my insurance offer.  Maybe we needed to take a gap year to grow up a bit first.  What if we’d quit in the first term and reassessed our options?  Who knows how things might have worked out?

Wishes and wonderings … But still some things assuage our regrets. 

Last Sunday, our university housemates gathered around our dining table.  We feasted upon roast chicken and an almond cake (it should have been vanilla but I pick up the wrong extract bottle). We sat together and talked and shared our lives.  Mostly they wanted to know what’s been going on in our life, in our head, over the last few tumultuous months.

As they piled into the car to make the hundred plus mile trip back to their homes, I felt their warmth and affection.  I knew how much they cared about me, about us – the clueless girl we were then and the still learning woman we were are now.  I felt this love and knew we made some good decisions after all.

With all my love,

Rae, now aged thirty-four

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Having fun with fashion

News update: I’ve two articles out this week available on the web.  One is an assessment of the BBC documentary Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue for The Huffington Post.  The other is a piece about my recent experience of therapy on the site Welldoing.Org.  I’d love for you to take a read, comment and share of either or both of these!

having-fun-with-fashion
 

Here’s me having some fun with hair dye!

 

One of the paradoxical ‘Secrets of Adulthood’ identified by Gretchen Rubin in New York Times’ bestsellers The Happiness Project and Happier at Home is ‘Take yourself less seriously – and take yourself more seriously’.  I think the same dual approach is needed when it comes to fashion and personal appearance.  I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post earlier this week which argues that as a society we don’t value fashion.  We don’t take it seriously enough considering its economic and cultural significance.  We treat it as simply women interested in blusher.  Try telling that to the thousands affected by the recent closure of BHS when its parent company cared more about the fashionable Topshop chain than the dowdy and downtrodden British Home Stores.

The paradox of course is that we could also do with taking fashion less seriously.  While on a macro level more seriousness is needed, on a micro level the opposite couldn’t be truer.  In our personal lives, we can get far too anxious and sensible about it all.

In the Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue documentary which I discuss on The Huffington Post, fashion director Lucinda Chambers talks about how the atmosphere at Vogue has changed over her thirty-six years there.  She describes editor Alexandra Shulman as running a much tighter ship, a comment which implies more professionalism and more seriousness.  Chambers is very polite about this change but it is clear that she sees it as a loss too.  Does this increase in professionalism and seriousness mean a reduction in fun and thus also creativity?  Her tone indicates that this is so.

We see the same dynamic at work in our own relationship to dress and personal appearance.  The dominate trend in cosmetics over recent years has been contouring not colour – literally creating airbrushed, identikit versions of ourselves a la the Kardashians rather than letting loose with colour in a highly personal way.  Abby Jones’s excellent piece in The Pool about the classicist and fat-shaming attitudes inherent in The Daily Mail’s feature on Jenna Coleman hints at the same kind of shift, with Coleman’s public image being transformed by the upper-class aesthetic and deportment that she has now adopted.  Individuality is traded for the safety of respectable conformity.

Why don’t we put the fun back into our fashion choices?  Where is our sense of play when it comes to getting dressed?

Years ago, I temped in a number of admin jobs that ranged from interesting and pleasant to those so dreadful I resorted to watching Big Brother in order to be able to join in office conversations.  During that time, I realised that what I wore could be a useful outlet for my frustration and boredom.  I’d set myself mini-challenges such as wear a different pair of shoes every day for a week or style the same scarf differently for as many days as possible.

I rediscovered this playing-a-game approach to fashion during my recent time at a mental health day hospital.  I’m not exactly sure when it began but at some point during my two months there, I found myself becoming obsessed with my accessory choices for the day.  This soon became a new challenge: could I wear a different accessory every day?

Although purely a fun exercise, this daily activity became a vital lifeline.  At a time when my sense of self was smashed up and in the gutter, asserting a positive choice about jewellery or scarves or other decoration each morning helped me to reconnect with who I feel I am and what I enjoy doing.  The paradox of concurrently less serious and more serious was most definitely at work then.

I think I might pick this challenge up again this week.  The weather is sufficiently warm that I can’t switch to lovely autumnal clothing yet but I’m tiring of my summer wear.  I’m also feeling a bit shaky on the inside.  I need a fun distraction to stop me getting too angsty again.  So what could be better than playing around in my jewellery box?

Fancy joining me?  I’ll be tagging my choices #havingfunwithfashion over on Instagram.  Would love for you to play along too.

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Fear but courage too: getting to where we want to go

Fear but courage too.jpg

Back in June, I got a new bike. The old adage claims that you never forget how to ride one, but having not regularly ridden since early childhood, getting out on it felt like relearning a long lost skill. I also quickly learnt that my hometown’s geography is not at all what I thought it was. I grew up on the hilly side of town therefore believed that the opposite side (where I now live) is completely flat. Oh no, that is not the case! Turns out the flat side is pretty undulating too. I’m constantly moving up and down the gears as I negotiate the inclines, descents, humps, bumps and adverse cambers (the latter isn’t really relevant but I like the phrase ‘adverse camber’ and don’t get enough opportunities to use it).

My regular route from home to town includes going over a railway bridge. When I started riding, this posed a big challenge. On my first attempt, I had to get off and push the bike over. I then began gingerly creeping over in first gear and on the path, convinced that I had sudden onset asthma every time. Soon my speed and confidence increased. Three months on, I stay on the road and in fourth for the outward journey; on the return, I still go into second or even first but it gets easier every time.

Why?

Because I’m stronger and fitter now than I was then. Every time I cycle, my leg muscles gain a little bit extra strength. It may not be a big increase, but it all adds up.

Initially, I would only feel the burn in my calves. It seemed like they were the only part of my leg responsible for pushing the pedals around. Gradually I started to sense the contribution made by my hamstrings, then my gluteal muscles (the backs of my thighs and my ass). More recently, my quadriceps (the muscles at the front of my thighs) have been making their presence known as I come back over the bridge ever more powerfully.

All these different muscles, and no doubt a number of others, are at work when I cycle. Sometimes it might feel like it’s all down to one particular set but the truth is we rarely rely on one alone.

The same applies to our metaphorical muscles. Last week I wrote about feeling the fear and forcing ourselves to do it anyway. I talked about how using fear as a motivation for action was like flexing a muscle – the more we do it, the stronger it grows. Now I see that this face-the-fear muscle doesn’t operate in isolation. Like the muscles that make up my calves, thighs and bottom, the face-the-fear muscle works alongside that which drives courage.

Facing fear and building courage are in tandem. Using one strengthens the other too, and together they are what really get us out of our comfort zones. And if we use them regularly enough, they gain the kind of strength and momentum needed to get you where you really want to go. They become more powerful every time you flex them, however small the particular incident may seem.

I’ve been drawing on this power duo a lot lately, pushing my comfort zone in many ways. I’ve taken up netball (last played at school) and started to learn Italian. I’ve booked a train ticket to meet up with some other girl bosses that I only know via Facebook. I’ve submitted a piece of writing and am collaborating on another creative project. Some of these activities feel more nerve-wracking than others. Italian is largely fun (even if I do want to get fifteen out of fifteen on every. single. test.); putting my work out into the world is gut-wrenching.

Yet each time I push the boundaries of where I feel comfortable, something great happens. I can’t say it gets easier, but it doesn’t feel quite so hard. It might be unpleasant, uncomfortable, challenging, but I know I can survive it – I know because I’ve been through it, or something similar, before. I’ll get through to the other side and will be stronger for it.

Tweet: Courage is fears nemesis. Courage is fear’s nemesis. To face our fear, we draw on courage too – and that very same courage will also help to quash fear just that little bit more. Like when riding a bike, we don’t use just one muscle but pairs or even groups of them. Facing our fear and using our courage is a great combination. Together they will get us over so many of the bridges and hills that we have to climb.

Feel the fear & force ourselves to do it anyway

Feel the fear and force ourselves to do it anyway.jpg

This morning I sat with my first coffee of the day on the front bench.  The air was cool but the sun was strong enough to warm me.  I went out with the intention of reading some emails but, as is so often the case, got waylaid by social media.

Coffee drunk, emails still unread, I decided to have a second cup.  Nursing number two decaff, I opened my inbox.  I’d ‘saved’ a couple of messages from the night before because they looked too juicy to read without being fully attentive to them (I was catching up on The Great British Bake-Off when they’d arrived in my tray).  Two more equally enticing messages lay there as well.  Working my way through them, I could feel gratitude swelling my heart.  All four emails contained amazing content that made me feel content to be alive (not something to be taken for granted after months of debilitating mental health issues).  Not only that, they inspired me for the workday ahead, all feeding into the thoughts and themes that I am trying to bring to my writing right now.

This gratitude was swiftly followed by a slightly guilty sense of luck.  Back when I was working full-time at my previous job, every login to my email bought a sinking sensation in my stomach at the prospect of what might be awaiting me.  Changed deadlines, moved goalposts, requests that I really, truly did not want to fulfil, and maybe a nice message in there too.  For over five years I tolerated this discomfort without really thinking about it.  It’s only in its absence do I realise how uptight even the simple task of reading emails made me.  I was unhappy, my body knowing what my mind refused to acknowledge.

In the end, my body and some long relegated part of my mind joined forces against me.  As my mental health struggles worsened earlier this year, I found myself physically unable to get out of bed when the time came to go to work.  It sounds like some lame excuse that I’m making up but truthfully, I am serious.  Parts of me that I was trying to ignore ratchetted up the anxiety, panic and stress until normal service could not be resumed.  So I quit.

After years of wrangling about my career choice, the actual decision to resign came relatively easily.  I knew that it was the only option left available and I felt relief at actually asserting some kind of authority over my situation after years of feeling victimised by it.  I had a supportive partner, savings and a small business on the backburner, all of which I could lean on.  Still, leaving full-time, well paid employment for I wasn’t exactly sure what was terrifying if I thought about it too much.  ‘Aren’t you worried?’, people asked.  Of course!  But I knew this was the decision I had to take.  It was a classic case of feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’: was there ever a phrase from self-help literature as hackneyed as this?  It is so embedded in common parlance that many probably don’t realise that there is a 1987 book with that title by Susan Jeffers.  However clichéd the term itself has now become, Jeffers’ text is worth a read, providing a nuanced argument about how to use our fear in productive ways.  As she and others recognise, fear is a natural human response.  We should not simply ignore it, riding roughshod over alarm bells and warning signs.  Feeling the fear and doing it anyway is not about putting ourselves in danger but instead pushing our comfort zones a little further, stretching ourselves beyond where we’ve gone before – further but not necessarily too far.

Maybe I’ve read this analogy before, I don’t remember, but using our fear as motivation for action seems to me like building a muscle.  The more we flex it, the more we use it, the stronger it grows.  We have to test ourselves with small challenges so we are used to the process and sensation of overcoming fear before trying to take on grander struggles.  You’re not going to get far attempting a solo round-the-world yachting expedition unless you’ve taken some adult swimming lessons to get over your fear of water first.  You’re not going to establish a new relationship with alcohol unless you are prepared to face one social occasion without drinking first.

Of course building up this metaphorical muscle is easier said than done.  Even those small steps towards facing our fear can seem overwhelming.  In the hours building up to my second netball practice session last night, I was riven with anxiousness about attending.  Despite having a brilliant time the previous week, my monkey mind was very good at coming up with arguments as to why I shouldn’t go back.  This time they’ll know that I’m rubbish.  This time no-one will want to mark me because I am so useless at playing.  This time they’ll shout at me for missing passes.  This time they’ll point and laugh and say ‘Look at that stupid fat girl trying to play our game!  Let’s all point and laugh!’  This time they’ll tell me to never darken the doorstep of their clubhouse again.

In the end, I only went because I promised myself I’d never have to attend another session ever again if I didn’t enjoy it.  Oh, and my friend was already sat on the drive waiting to pick me up.

Obviously I totally loved it, just as I had the previous week.

I won’t pretend that feeling the fear and doing it anyway was pleasant or easy.  However, it was worthwhile.  I gained from it not just because I had fun playing netball, but also because it strengthened that face-the-fear muscle just a little more.  The same irrational thoughts will probably surface next week, and the one after, and the one after that, but each time that metaphorical muscle will get stronger.  And I’ve signed up to play for a team so I’ll leave myself no choice but to keep on facing that fear.  There’s no harm in giving ourselves an extra push if we need it.