More thoughts on writing characters with mental health challenges: my approach so far

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the challenges involved in writing characters facing mental health challenges. I have been thinking about this quite a lot because one of the protagonists in my novel (working title Feeding Jasmine Valentine) has challenges with her mental health. It’s a fantasy novel and it’s perhaps a little bit unusual for one of the hero’s of the story to be struggling with their mental health, but that’s why it’s important to me that to do a decent job. While I can’t claim to have an encyclopaedic understanding of the genre, I’ve not seen many fantasy books in which the person with mental health challenges gets to be the hero (although that being said there are quite a lot of characters out there who are clearly struggling with trauma), while I have seen plenty of poor or stereotyped bit characters, and I wanted to do something different.

From a personal perspective I’ve had my own challenges and have many friends who have had mental health experiences. Poor representation does none of us any favours.

I’d like to think that I have an advantage here, in that in my day job as a mental health researcher should give me a bit of additional insight, and that have been working alongside people with their own mental health experience for a number of years. 

I thought it may be helpful to try to describe the approach I have been taking here, which really boils down to a very simple set of things:

1. Characters with mental health challenges are not just walking chapters from a psychiatry textbook, and can’t be reduced down to a list of symptoms to tick off through a creative project. I’ve seen this done before, and it’s just really offensive.

2. I started with the character first. What kind of person was she (and it is a she in this case)? What did she like, or not like? What did she do?

3. I identified the significant symptoms that were causing her problems (I didn’t start with a diagnosis, and actually am still a bit unsure what that would be), and then tried to understand how those symptoms my interfere with her wanting to do the things she wants to do. 

So the approach I’ve taken, which I think is OK, is to start with the character, and then think about how her mental health influences her experiences and what she does. It was not to start with a set of symptoms and then build a character around those, as my hunch was that this would result in a really reductive simplistic character who was defined by her mental health, rather than it being part of a much bigger picture.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to anyone who is trying to write about mental health, let me know in the comments below.

Thank you for reading. I also make art and films. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here. 

Thoughts on Radical Kindness: Why writers and artists should practice it (Part 3)

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[This is part 3 of a series of blogs about kindness. Please see parts 1 and 2 here]

When I began writing these posts I kind of thought this would have been one of my ‘here are my random thoughts on this’ kind of posts and that would be it. However life rarely turns out as you expect. I have been thinking a bit about my own journey as a person, and as an artist and writer, and what I’m about really through these posts.

I actually wanted to write and make art when I was a teenager, but I also wanted to ‘help people’ and somehow got it into my head that being an artist/writer would mean that I wouldn’t be doing that (I have seriously revised my view on this now!). Instead I went off to university to study medicine, thinking that doctors ‘helped’ people so that was what I should do. While I really loved learning about the science, and believe that having the opportunity to study human anatomy through full body dissection was one of the great privileges of my life, it turned out that the practice of medicine was not for me. I left after four years to do a PhD in psychology, during which I studied things like advertising, persuasion and the impact that stories can have on us. I still wanted to write and make art, but some how I wasn’t ready, because I hadn’t really found my subject.

Later I did research into mental health and genetics, and I left a long term relationship because my then partner would not even talk about having children (hence I am quite late to the baby party). After this I had a bit of a break down really, although I would not have called it that at the time. I was depressed, very anxious, and drinking lots. I was in a bad way, and (cliche alert) I became attached to a number of men who were not attached to me.

I continued to work in mental health but the kind of work I did changed so that I was doing research with colleagues who also had mental health issues. We talked a lot, and I listened a lot, and in the middle of all of that, I found I was ready to make things and write things. I am now writing a novel in which people have experienced trauma and who live with those things. It’s also a fantasy novel, so I am trying to weave in strands of myth and magic, which makes things a bit complicated, but and I think I finally found my subject. I think this is the many splendid forms of being human and all the emotional consequences of that. 

So why do I think that artists and writers in particular should practice radical kindness? I think that, beyond just being a good person, there are a number of reasons. I think to create art, or convincing characters that really speak to people, it can really help to understand people. It can really help to understand the rich and varied emotional lives many people live. To understand people, you need to connect with people on an honest level. To connect with people, it really, really helps if you are kind. People will tell you things about themselves, and help you, incrementally, to better understand all the different ways of being human, if you are kind.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Thoughts on Radical Kindness as a Daily Practice: Part 2

img_0390[This blog is Part 2 of a series blogs – see Part 1 here.]

When I started writing this blog series I just wanted to express a general thought about kindness; that posting nice quotes or stories is not enough. We need to think about it like yoga, as a kind of daily or weekly practice to actually make a difference. I see this a potential political movement, not just a personal practice, although perhaps more developed thoughts on that can wait for later.

In writing that post I realised that I had learned a few specific things in the last few years working in mental health that were helpful to me. You may or may not find them helpful to you, so I’ve made a little list:

  1. Listening to, rather than talking to, people. I think this has been my major learning in the last few years and it’s also something I keep banging on about. I have even blogged about this in the past here. Learning to listen carefully to people, and to be able to show that I am listening to them has, I think, been the thing that has made the biggest difference in being able to really connect with people. I have learned a whole set skills that relate to listening over time. I will write a separate post about them at some point.
  2. Resisting the urge to ‘fix it’, and understanding that is often not what people need anyway. I think that ignoring or avoiding the urge to immediately jump up and try to fix something for someone when they are having a difficult time is really important. I am not sure if this is a British thing or more broadly applicable, but in the UK we are socially accustomed to avoiding difficult conversations. This often leads to the impulse to jump up and ‘do something’ when one arises, rather than giving someone the full extent of space and time they need to explain themselves. While practical is often help is very much appreciated, if offered too early it is often inappropriate and may just demonstrate that you weren’t listening in the first place.
  3. Resisting the urge to interrupt, or finish people’s sentences. Actually I have a really hard time with this one, because I find myself doing this quite a bit and then being cross with myself. But it’s also the biggest indicator for me that someone is not listening, or has lost patience with me when they do this. So this is an area I am working on.
  4. Don’t dismiss someone’s feelings, or suggest someone may be overreacting or making it up. Just don’t. It’s not nice. It’s not kind.
  5. Understanding that kindness may look different to different people. You can’t always get it right. I have often said things or done things that have landed badly, often when I was too tired, or took too little time to understand. It’s ok to get things wrong. It’s not ok to stop trying, or to avoid understanding why things went wrong. Try, try again. 
  6. Try not to give advice. Lots of people with mental health problems have heard all the advice before. I have found asking people what they have tried, and not tried out is a much better way to get into a conversation about what to do next. For example don’t tell people with anxiety to try a puzzle book, or a colouring book. They very probably have six of each sitting at home, half finished. Please don’t tell people to ‘go for a nice walk’. It’s not that simple. I always come back to listening. A lot of people feel a little bit better when they feel heard, and that they can trust you to keep a confidence.
  7. Don’t assume you know what someone is feeling. Even if you have been through the exact same thing, which you probably haven’t, you don’t. Let them tell you instead.
  8. Understanding my own boundaries, trying to protect them. Again this is something I have really struggled with in the past because I thought being kind meant being there for everyone else all the time, at the expense of what ever may be going on for me. Then I got really ill for a while with anxiety, drank waaay too much, and realised that this approach, amongst other issues in my life at the time, were not working. Now I try really hard to limit the time spent in social situations as I find these very tiring, and to basically give my self a sensible amount of time to do things like replying to emails and texts rather than being ‘on tap’. I think some people may have felt that I have become very anti social because of this, but I’m happy with the focus on quality over quantity. 
  9. Don’t consume things that are cruel. As a rule I don’t buy gossip magazine or tabloid newspapers, I try to avoid clickbait type articles online (with partial success). I don’t follow people like Katie Hopkins or Piers Morgan on Twitter. Most of these media forms have, in part or in full, cruelty built into their business model. Let’s think about that. They make money by spreading things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disability hate, rape myths and assorted forms of ignorance, and untrue stories about people’s private lives. These things make the lives of ordinary people harder, and those people are often people who had a difficult run in the first place. It that what you want your hard earned money, or your precious time, to be doing? We can make things better, collectively, by refusing to reward anyone who makes money from this kind of content. Don’t pay for it. Don’t click on it. Don’t follow it. It’s like adding poison to your own well. As a happy side effect, you’ll feel a lot better without that kind of influence in your life. I have not bought a single ‘woman’s magazine’ for ten years, and I have not missed them at all.

I will have missed loads of things so please add your thoughts in the comments below.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Thoughts on Radical Kindness as a Daily Practice: Part 1.

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It’s almost ten years since Amy Winehouse died. I really liked her music and was lucky enough to see her perform twice during her first album. She was a wonderful, funny, forceful presence on stage. In later years I saw filmed footage of her at concerts and performances, and could see that things were going wrong for her, although niavely, I did not understand the extent of her distress. The world was not kind to the beautiful, talented, Amy Winehouse.

I do remember a point in time where I had bought myself a magazine and they had printed paparazzi photos of her out in the street, seemingly after having a fight, with only one shoe. At that point the penny dropped for me that I had bought a magazine that had effectively paid someone to stalk women. I have not bought ‘woman’s magazine’ since.

Not long after this Amy died. I was at a wedding with friends and we found out over breakfast with the morning papers. One of the people there said something to the effect of ‘well we all saw that coming.’ I remember thinking at the time how unkind this was, and how I didn’t really know my friend so well after all.

Over the last week or so press intrusion has been sited as a causal factor in the death of another woman, Caroline Flack. I didn’t really want to write about her, because before this happened I confess that I didn’t know who she was. I can’t comment on her work, or what kind of person she was, although the coverage suggests that she was very human, struggling along like the rest of us. One of the things I noticed in the last week that prompted me to write this post was a quote attributed to her circulating on social media. The quote went something along the lines of:

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

It’s a really nice quote, and it’s nice to see it circulating. I’ve also seen a lot of those ‘inspirational, pay-it forwards’ stories recently, like some one paying for someone else groceries in the checkout when they are short, and they are really nice to see too. However, sometimes I despair at quotes and stories like this, because it feels a bit like posting the quote is enough, and then we can go back to ‘business as usual’, which is not always particularly kind. Here’s my problem:

Posting the quote, or the story is not enough.

I have been working along side people with sometimes significant mental health problems for the last four and a half years, and I also spent a good amount of time talking to people who were thinking of suicide as a volunteer. This certainly doesn’t make me an expert on kindness, but it has given me a crash course in what practicing kindness can mean. In my experience genunine kindness is rarely about paying for a stranger’s shopping at the supermarket (although it can be about that). It is often about small gestures, and is as much about what you don’t do, as what you do do.

It means not interupting someone when they are trying to tell you something, even if you think you know what they are going to say. It means not giving advice, even if you are sure you are right, before you have taken the time to really try to understand the other person’s experiences. It means actively showing you are listening, that you care. It means putting down your phone. It means acknowledging you don’t know the answers, or that you don’t understand something. It means avoiding sentences that begin with ‘At least…’ It means not consuming click bait on the internet. And it means doing these things every single day, even when you are tired, or stressed, or distracted.

In a world where our politics and our media are becoming increasingly macho and frequently cruel, we, on mass, have a role to play in changing the direction of things. It means practicing radical kindness with each other, everyday, and it means refusing to support or consume things that are cruel.

This has turned into a rather lengthy blog post and I still have more to say – I will publish part two to this blog next week, so look out for that.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

 

More thoughts on mental health in the theatre – point me in the direction of better stories.

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Just so you know chaps, Spoilers ahead…

Two weekends ago I went to see the play Equus with a friend of mine. I don’t want to turn this blog into a ‘review of psychological plays’ blog, or indeed give the impression that I am more cultured than I am, always off to the theatre. The reality is more sitting in bed watching telly with my partner and cats rather than glamorous outings to the theatre. However I do have some more thoughts on this issue after seeing this play.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on Cypress Avenue by David Ireland (which was on at the Royal Court Theatre) but now I can’t seem to find the blog post, only the title – did anyone see the text? – it was a good post (even if I do say so myself) but wordpress seems only to have saved the title. I don’t know what happened, and I don’t think I’m going to re-write that post. Basically by thoughts were: was very funny, and probably has a lot to say about the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland. It’s the kind of play that middle class people  who are mostly untroubled by violence or poverty (I say this being a middle class person) come out of saying things like ‘shocking’, and ‘very powerful’. However from the point of view of talking about mental health, it’s really problematic. I’m really fed up with the ‘traumatised man goes mad and kills his whole family narrative’, it’s time for the ‘person goes through trauma and then turns that experience into something positive for them and their community’ narrative’, or the ‘person goes through trauma, and it’s pretty horrible, but they end up ok, and don’t kill anyone narrative.’ So that’s a summary of what that was about – I am sorry if you ended up seeing a blog post with a title and no content (especially after I claimed I was going to be a bit more consistent with my blogging again).

Cypress Avenue was a relatively new play compared to Equus, which was written by Peter Shaffer in 1973. I liked this one better, performed at the Stratford Playhouse, as I will explain, but I have different issues with this one. So basically it’s a play about a boy who blind’s six horses with a spike, which was a real world event in the 1970’s. Apparently the playwright wanted to think about what would drive a person to do such a thing. The story is of a boy who has built a vivid inner mental world that results in the blinding horses situation. It’s quite an intellectual play, based on a psychoanalytical perspective that ultimately manages to tie (because it’s freudian after all) everything back to some sexual event. I’m being a bit glib and a bit brief here but that’s the jist of it – I enjoyed the play and think it’s worth seeing/ reading. There were some really wonderful physical performances by the actors, and it very much treats the young man as a person, as a human being in pain, not as some kind of monster. I liked it for that. I also like that it kind of raises the question of whether it is right to take away someone’s belief system, just because it does not align with the majority view, although it does not answer this question (I am not sure that it could).

But here’s my problem with it. Many times through the play we hear that ‘the boy is in misery’ but we don’t actually see much of that on stage. So it’s a bit of sanitised view of that misery, and mostly we just have to take the word of the ‘professionals’ on the stage that this is the case. The boy has built an elaborate belief system around horses, and he then goes on to violate that belief system by attempting a sexual act in the stable (the symbolic Temple of Equus). The whole play basically treats mental illness as a puzzle – if you can just solve the puzzle then you will fix the person. I just don’t think it works like that in real life for many people. It’s an intellectual approach to mental health that I don’t think really respects the kind of pain and distress that people live with and go through. Many people who experience mental health problems (including myself) haven’t built elaborate belief systems that can be analysed and ‘solved’ in this way. Many people have been through understandable trauma, or live difficult, stressful lives, or are bullied and belittled on a regular basis or made to feel by society that they are ‘wrong’ in some fundamental way. It’s not a complicated secret to them where their pain comes from, what is complicated is how to alleviate that pain. For most people experiencing mental distress – it’s not a puzzle that can be solved and fixed, it’s an ongoing, day by day experience that they continue to endure. Understanding your own story can be the start of a healing journey, but it’s rarely the whole solution.

So, I still think we need better stories about mental health. However, as I confessed to at the beginning of this post, I am someone who mostly sits around with her partner and cats watching telly, it’s very likely that I have missed them. I would very much appreciate it if anyone has any good recommendations for plays, films, or books that give a more nuanced picture of mental health. Drop your recommendation in the comments – at some point I will write a post about the results.

Things to do when you are busy not having a baby

One of the things that my partner and I discussed early on in the process of having fertility treatment was how not to let the ‘trying to have a baby’ stuff consume all the energy we may have to do the ‘make life fun’ stuff. This sounds great in principle but isn’t  particularly easy in practice. A lot of the advice early on is to carry on ‘life as usual’. It is also to lose weight, do moderate exercise, but not too much, eat more of fruit and vegetables, less cake, and restrict your alcohol intake. And dont forget to ‘just relax’. So if your ‘usual’ doesn’t involve many of these things, ‘carry on as usual’ could translate to ‘undergo a radical lifestyle change’, which isn’t a very relaxing thing to think about.

While my partner and I did pretty well on the exercise and veggies, the beginnings of our relationship did involve the ‘British method’ of dating. For the uninitiated, I’m afraid to say that this involves some (by which I mean lots) public drunkenness, and other socialising involving at least a drink or two. So there was lifestyle change of a sort needed, which has been more successful at some times than others. Not drinking has been one of the things I have been doing while busy not quite having a baby, which really means less socialising too. In the UK there is an absurd cultural pressure to drink when socialising, and it’s kind of wierd to have to explain to people that you’re not drinking because you aren’t pregnant. It’s not like not drinking because you got knocked up (hurrah! Hopefully). It tends to prompt conversations about how you should have a drink and ‘just relax’, as if you just aren’t quite doing sex right. Which isn’t relaxing at all.

So not socialising becomes one of the things you do when you are busy not having a baby. Personally I feel better for not spending as much time socialising. I want to spend my spare time swimming and doing arty things. I think my introverted parts have become more dominant as I’ve got older and I don’t have the energy for it any more. But I can see how this in itself could be very isolating for someone more extroverted. I have noticed may self that my social circle has narrowed somewhat, and now includes several ladies who are also busy avoiding conversations that unintentionally suggest that they don’t quite know how sex works. While it’s kind of nice to hang out in that boat with them, all extraordinary individuals, the conversations can be sad. For several of us, things are not working. Counterintuitively, my social circle has expanded to include several friends who have just had babies (I can hang out with babies and not really get too sad – I think I am lucky here), so they can’t drink much, and don’t want to talk much about how sex works just right now, thanks. They also had some success at actually getting pregnant, and who knows, that magic could be catching.

So far it feels like what one does when busy trying to have a baby is actively try not to do things. Which is kind of hard on the mental health, and opens the door to an unhealthy level of guilt about ‘not doing things right’. Am I drinking too much coffee? Am I breathing too much polluted London air? One of my lovely, clever friends, Julia, who has had two gorgeous babies now, gave me some kind advice recently. She said that if I just make it as inconvenient as possible to have a baby right now, it will happen. Book that expensive wine tour in central France. Plan to train for a marathon. Go for that tricky promotion. So next weekend I’ll be swimming a 5K race in the lake district, and today will be spent working on my film and checking out an open air swimming pool I’ve not been to before. Go after the juicy difficult rewarding other things in life, she said. And I shall.

Like what you see? I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.

Patience and watching my garden grow

I started writing this a few weeks ago, but I’ve been kind of working through a sticky depressive brain fog since then and I feel so slow at the moment (and I already picked the slow road so you know, snail pace slow right now) so apologies for the relative radio silence. I also wanted to think a bit about pressing the ‘publish’ button in this, as it’s a bit more personal than the posts I normally go with. But I’ve decided it’s ok. I hope you think it’s ok too.

A few weeks ago I planted out some plants into the garden we had raised inside from seed. Anyone living in the UK at the moment will know that we’ve had some unpredictable weather recently and so we kept these little plants inside a bit longer than was really good for them because of some very late snow and ice. A week ago in the heatwave I caught myself going out into the garden every few hours when I was home, inpatiently tracking the growth of my plants (and monitoring which ones were being eaten by the snails, but that’s another story).

I’ve been thinking about this a bit this week as I surprised myself a bit. In my work life patience is one of the ruling principles of doing the work I do. I work in mental health research – rush tends to lead to ruin here. At home I have picked the kind of art forms that are slow. The finished thing reveals itself over a period of weeks, months or years. While I have often felt frustrated with myself, I have mostly made peace with picking such slow hobbies.

In the last few weeks, pacing around the garden I have questioned a little my full capacity for patience. One of the big things in my life, that had been silent in my writing here so far, is that my partner and I have been trying to have a baby, for quite some time. There have been some tests, some medication, some more tests, and now some more medication. Yesterday I started injecting myself with hormones, and this will be a daily deal for a while. There has been healthy living and less alcohol and talk about reducing stress. Thus far things have not worked. I am aware of the importance of patience here too. I have very little control, apart from the obvious (wink wink), over making a baby happen.

Some times I think that I need more than patience. Patience isn’t enough. I need a better strategy or plan for managing the weird emotional fall out from this situation. Holding my friend’s gorgeous 2 month old baby is a joy as it should be. But there is sadness on the train ride home. Some days I actually don’t feel at all bad about where we are – we are lucky, I can access good medical care on the nhs, and have a great doctor helping me. Some days I talk to my friend who is devastated after her multiple attempts at ivf have failed and think, that could be me in a year. Right now I still have hope, and have been building on my mental stamina. But I’ve not been building a plan. I’m not sure what that would look like. Outside the peas in my garden are just beginning to flower.

Swimming the distance: mental health as a endurance pursuit

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If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may (or may not!) know that I’m currently training for a long distance swim in June. I’ll be swimming 5K, which is just over 3 miles (not an insubstantial distance for a swimmer), in lake Windermere during the Great North swim in June. At the moment I’m a bit concerned that I’ll be pulled out of the water half way through as I’m a little slow, but I have a bit more time to train and have been putting the effort in. Last year I swam a 2 mile event in about 1 hour and 20 minutes so if I can up my pace a bit and keep it going I should be ok, but I have the nerves all the same. I am already fitter than I was for last years event, but the distance is longer so on balance I am probably not as far ahead of myself as I would like to be.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been putting in a session in the gym one evening a week after work, as well as the swims. It’s a bit awkward to swim before or after work as the timings of the appropriate swim sessions don’t quite fit with my commute, and I don’t have enough discipline to quite force them to work! I’m trying to build up my stamina in just being able to do the same uncomfortable thing, mostly on the elliptical machine, for extended periods of time. I am concentrating on building up endurance and stamina, not so much speed. That is a gradual game. Little by little I get a bit stronger. Little by little each time I go a bit further. While at the gym a few weeks ago I was thinking about how the same principle applies to many of the other things I’ve been doing. I’ve been making the same film for at least 4 years now, and slowly I accumulate new bits and pieces for that until suddenly it starts to look like something that makes sense as a whole.

I think that working on my own mental health has been a similar process. I have a stressful day job. In the past few years I had some considerable anxiety about a range of things, and a bit of depression tagged along with that. Living like that is really tiring. Getting physically fitter now is probably really helping with that, but that has come as part of a general effort towards a healthier way of living at home. We now eat predominantly (but not exclusively) healthy plant based food, and have been doing so for over a year, but it took some time to work out how to make that work for us. I started working part time last year, dropping one day to enable me to swim and make things, which was quite a big little step in the right direction.

I wouldn’t say that I now spend all my time walking around in a state of ecstatic energetic creative contentment. But little by little, I think my ability to endure for the less enjoyable stuff of life, and look past it to the next fun thing is growing. Mental health isn’t a sprint to the finish line, it’s a long distance game.

Objects with meaning – do you want to join in?

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A few weeks ago I started running a series of posts about ‘objects with meaning’, by which I meant objects that have personal importance to us, so that they may make up part of our emotional story or landscape. You can read that original post here should you want to know more. You can also have a look at some of the objects here and here.

Anyway, I found that something pretty exciting had happened at the beginning of this week when writer Scar (of blog SCAR) took up the idea behind this post and wrote her own lovely post about her own poignant ‘objects of meaning’. You can read her post here. I was particularly taken with the tale of her Ukulele and of her Happy Wagon. No spoilers – if you want to know more you’ll need to head over there to get the full story. If you like books, or ever have occasion to roam London looking for good places to hang out or eat, her blog is also for you.

So I really like the idea that other bloggers may want to write about their own ‘objects of meaning’ and the stories behind them. I think ideas are best shared. If you would like to join in I would be happy to host guest posts here, or link to posts on other blogs to direct some traffic. I really like the idea that we could together develop a web or map of stories through interesting objects, nearly forgotton pieces of clothing and long cherished toys – it would be exciting to act as a hub for that.

Please grab my attention by posting in the comments below, or you can email me at rose@magpieatmidnight.co.uk if you would prefer that.

I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.

Veganuary: the story so far

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Regular readers (hello!) will know that we’ve been giving veganuary a try over here at the Magpie Nest. I don’t have any plans to become a food blogger, my main interest here is exploring creativity and wellbeing, and other things related to that. I did, however, want to offer up a few thoughts about the things I’ve learned so far about eating vegan.

There are a whole range of different approaches out there to vegan diets – we’ve been eating a wide range of things, both raw and cooked, including lots of different beans, grains, fruits, vegetables. Pretty much the least restrictive version of ‘vegan’ you can get. We have, however, avoided eating processed or ready made vegan meals, and have been trying to keep the ‘refined sugar’ down to a minimum. This is mostly because we wanted to use the time to experiment with different forms of cooking, not because we feel strongly about ‘ready meals’. We are also on dry January at the moment, so no booze. We’ve been doing research on nutrition to make sure we get enough of the things (there are lots of things). I particularly like this book by Jack Norris and Virgina Messina, who use scientific evidence to back up their advice (its American so UK readers will need to do a bit of research to translate the serving size suggestions). So, by following the above type of diet I have found:

I can eat all day. Seriously, I’m steadily loosing weight and I can pretty much chomp down on what I want at the moment, including lots of nuts and avocados. This suits me really well as I’m a bit of a grazer, but I can see that for some people this would not be ideal situation. It’s also likely to be related, in part, to not drinking this month, so I’ll see how that changes in February.

My sense of taste has changed. I’ve been cutting out refined sugar for a while now as I have quite bad sugar crashes. Now I find a whole range of foods, from red peppers to dark chocolate, taste much sweeter to me now. In fact I used to find dark (70% + cocoa) quite bitter, but now I can’t get enough of it. Which is good for my brain (well that’s my story anyway).

Vegan cooking is pretty yummy. We’ve been trying out all sorts of things in our efforts to make sure we get enough protein. So far this has been really enjoyable, and it has pushed us to be more creative and experimental. This in itself is a mental health plus for me. I particularly like sprinkling toasted nuts and seeds on soups, stews, curries and pasta which adds an extra crunch to the texture of what ever it is we’ve been eating.

My wallet is a little heavier. We’ve definitely spent less on food. I should add that we’ve not been eating out at all because of the dry January thing, which helps, but we are still spending less. We’ve stocked up on dried beans (which are cheap) and fresh veggies, and aren’t spending what we normally would on meat products (which is significantly less cheap).

There is a strange satisfaction in soaking dried beans over night. A while ago I blogged about how some aspects of my arts practice forced me to slow down, and this can be a helpful mental health thing. Shifting our cooking from things that can be thrown in a hot pan and served 30 minutes later to things that need to be soaked over night, washed, cooked and cooked some more has made us think more carefully about what we put in our bodies. This point resonates for me with this really nice post by Rumpy Dog on food and self care. Go read that.

I feel better. Physically and mentally I do feel better. Not perfect, unlimited energy better, but noticeably better. This could be due to the novelty of it all. We are supplementing things like B12, and eating lots of dark chocolate, which is high in tryptophan. Both of these things are important things for a healthy nervous system. So it could be due to that too. I’ve definitely been feeling less nervous, which is good.

Vegan doodles are fun. Expect more.