Holding on to self-identity

I recently watched a TED talk by a lady called Jennifer Brea, who spoke about her experiences of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME. You know that feeling when someone sums up your own experiences so completely that you feel a warm sense of belonging? When those thoughts and feelings that are so complex you can’t even completely make sense of them yourself, are perfectly expressed by someone else and you suddenly realise you are not as alone as you thought you were? That’s how this TED talk made me feel. If you are someone with chronic illness, if you know someone with chronic illness, or if you’re just a human being who’s interested in the experiences of others, please take some time to watch it:

TED Talk Jen Brea: What happens when you have a disease doctors can’t diagnose

She starts the talk by showing what her life used to be like. 28 years old, studying for a PhD, in a loving relationship and enjoying life. I recently attended a conference at which there was a presentation by someone from a CFS treatment centre, who said that many people with CFS share common personality traits: high-achieving, active, introvert and perfectionist. Apparently there is research to support this, although I’ve not read the studies myself. But it’s interesting, because I think my friends and family would probably say I fit that overall description, and from Jennifer’s talk, it sounds like she would too.

I have no idea why this would be. I might speculate that being an introvert and a perfectionist is mentally stressful, and being an active go-getter can be physically stressful, an maybe this puts a strain on the immune system. Or maybe when people who push themselves a little too hard get sick, they don’t rest as much as they should, and the body finds it harder to recover. I don’t know, these are just ideas, and I can think of many other reasons why this might be true.

Nonetheless, it strikes me as ironic that the people who are most likely to develop CFS are those who are least likely to enjoy resting and taking life slowly. Of course, I’m not suggesting for a second that anyone would enjoy chronic fatigue syndrome or any chronic illness, but for those of us who really enjoy being on the go, both physically and mentally, chronic illness is a bit of a slap in the face. And this led me to think about how chronic illness affects our self-identity.

During my good years, I was a very active person. I LOVE exercise. I would even say I get a little addicted to exercise. I used to run two or three times a week, go to various classes at the gym, lift weights and do high intensity interval training. I haven’t done any of these things for about 3 years. Actually that’s a lie. About 6 months ago after a particularly good week I decided to attempt a body pump class. The weights I lifted were about a quarter of what I used to lift two or three times a week during my good years. And yet that one class led to a major crash that took me about a week to recover from. It might sound a bit sad, but I think about body pump all the time. I used to love body pump. It was more than just a gym class. It was a hobby, a social activity, a way to keep fit and feel good about myself. Body pump was a part of my self-identity.

During my good years, I was also a runner. Admittedly, not a very good one. I was never going to make it to the olympics but god damn it, I loved to run. Just before my health really took a turn for the worse, I ran with a wonderful running group in the town where I live. I met some fantastic people. People I still call friends several years since I last ran with them. But still, it’s hard to keep in touch with your ‘running friends’ when you can’t run anymore. Running was a huge part of my life. It was something I did for me, to keep active, to get outside even on the coldest and wettest of days, to stay in touch with nature, and to have a good old chat with my running buddies. Running was a part of my self-identity.

During my good years, I used to love walking. There isn’t much in life that makes me happier than being outside. The beach, the forest, the moors, wherever – if it’s outside, I want to be there. I crave the outdoors. I am lucky that my health doesn’t restrict me as much as it does for many people, and I do still get outdoors sometimes. But it’s hard enough even when you are in good health to find the time and energy to go for a walk, so when you have unpredictable health to add to the list of things that make it difficult, trips to the countryside are a rare treat for me now. Being outdoors makes me feel alive, it makes me feel happiness and joy right down to my bones. Ever since I was a young child I have been an outdoorsey-person. My favourite thing as a kid was to help my Dad out in the garden. Being an outdoorsey person was not just for fun; it was part of my self-identity.

During my good years, I used to love meeting my friends for a drink on a Friday night. Ok, this isn’t exactly the healthiest activity in the world. But sometimes, there’s nothing that hits the spot quite like a glass of wine or two with your friends. A chance to forget about all your worries from the week just gone and the week up ahead, and let your hair down with the people whose company you enjoy most. These days, I really can’t tolerate alcohol. In fact since starting my Lyme disease treatment, I’m not able to drink at all due to drug interactions. I’m not saying I want to be drinking a bottle of wine every night, but it would be nice to have the option once in a while to meet my friends for a few drinks and know that it won’t put me in bed for a week. The freedom to go out for a drink was a right; a choice that was taken away from me. That choice was part of my self-identity.

During my good years, I used to love doing puzzles. I don’t mean picture puzzles like your granny used to do (although those are fun too!). I mean logic puzzles, crosswords, sudoku, brain-teasers. I may have got my love of the outdoors from my Dad, but I definitely got my Mum’s love of numbers. One of the symptoms I find most frustrating now is brain fog. It doesn’t happen all the time, and I definitely don’t get it as badly as many people with Lyme disease do. In fact, I count my lucky stars that I am still able to engage in my work, and it’s mentally challenging work at that. But I do struggle. On my sicker days, I struggle to find words. I know what I want to say in my head, but I can’t get the words out. I struggle to engage in anything mentally challenging and any attempt at an academic conversation has me totally exhausted. I have gotten pretty good at approaching my work flexibly, so that on those bad days I do the more mundane jobs, and I reserve the thinking jobs, the reading, the writing, for the good days. And I’m so fortunate that I have good days. But how I would love to not be restricted mentally, academically, and professionally, by my health. Being a thinker, an academic, a logic puzzle loving nerd; they were part of my self-identity.

I think you get the picture. Chronic illness changes your self-identity. It takes away the things that made you, you. And suddenly, through no choice of your own, you are a different person. I don’t think you really lose your self-identity, but rather, you gain a new self-identity. These days, I spend a lot of time doing crochet in my pyjamas, and honestly, I get a lot of pleasure from that. But if I had the choice, I would much rather be at the gym or going for a jog. Yoga is also a huge part of my life now, and the wonderful thing is that I never take it for granted. Every single time I roll out my yoga mat I am grateful that my body, mind and life circumstances have allowed me to be there. Many are not so lucky.

But if chronic illness changes your self-identity, what happens if you get well? Recovery is something that I think about and dream about every single day and I can’t even begin to describe what I would give to have my health back. And yet, there is anxiety about recovery. Because if I recover, if I am no longer a sick person – who am I? Many of the things that now make up my self-identity will once again be taken away. I won’t have to sit in my pyjamas crocheting a cardigan, but I might choose to. Holy smokes, I will have the choice! That sounds both wonderful and scary at the same time. If I recover, will I return to the running, gym-loving, weight-lifting, puzzle-completing nutcase I once was, or am I now a permanent crocheting, pyjama-loving, in-bed-by-9pm, stone cold sober, sensible person? Have I held on to my self-identity, or have I lost it forever?

 

 

My homemade handwash

Last month I wrote about my quest for a more natural lifestyle, free from nasty products known to cause harm, and I shared the recipe for my homemade deodorant. I was super excited when several people got in touch to say they were going to give it a go. To be fair, I am pretty easily pleased. Any reaction to homemade products besides an eye-roll, a raised eyebrow, or that look that subtly says “oh, you’re one of those”, and my day is made.

When I first started dabbling in homemade products I really had no idea what I was letting myself in for. It started on a bit of a whim. I’d stumbled across a blog post discussing the potential harms of ingredients in commercial deodorant, and recommending a homemade alternative. It sounded kind of crazy, but it also sounded kind of fun. Making homemade products is a bit like baking: you find a recipe, whip out your measuring spoons and off you go. Much like when I bake, I’m not very good at sticking to recipes. I like the idea of a recipe. A neat and tidy list perfectly packaged and ready to go. Oh how I love a good list. Nearly as much as my Dad, who has even been known to keep a list of lists. Amazing. But after a few attempts I inevitably run out of some vital ingredient and in my typical slapdash, bull-in-a-china-shop approach to life, I chuck in some other random ingredients and hope for the best. Needless to say, there have been many, many failed attempts along the way. But what fun is life if things always go right?

So I started making homemade products because it sounded kind of fun and I probably had nothing better to do one sunday afternoon. But a funny thing happens when you start living a natural lifestyle. It is oh so addictive! There is always more to learn, more to research, another recipe to attempt, and before you know it you are well on your way down the one-way road to hippydom.

I am still experimenting with lots of new recipes, including washing powder (which is super easy by the way), and even…..holds breath and hopes no-one judgy is reading….toothpaste! But given my ‘chuck it all in and hope for the best’ approach I couldn’t possibly share my haphazard experiments with you. Instead, here is one of my long-term favourites. My homemade handwash.

Makes about 450ml; not to teach your granny to suck eggs or anything, but if you want to make less, use less.

Ingredients

  • 250ml water
  • 60ml liquid castile soap. I like Dr Bronner’s but there are other brands too.
  • 25ml oil (jojoba, avocado, sweet almond, or even plain old olive oil)
  • 30ml honey – if you’re vegan or don’t have honey, you can leave it out and add a little extra oil
  • 1 tsp xantham gum
  • 20 drops of essential oils of your choice (optional)

To make

  1. In a blender combine the water, oil, honey, xantham gum and essential oils.
  2. Add the castile soap and pulse for a few seconds – castile soap is, well, soap, so if you put this in at step 1 you will end up with a big foamy mess.
  3. Pour into a bottle. You can spend lots of money on a posh soap dispenser or if you’re frugal like me (read: cheapskate), just reuse an old soap bottle when you’re done with  it.

 

 

 

My go-to homemade deodorant

I recently posted about my quest for a natural lifestyle, free from as many harsh ingredients as possible. I’ve always been very sensitive to commercial products. I have countless memories throughout my life of allergic reactions to various products. Like the time my eyes swelled almost completely shut after having makeup applied for a dance show when I was about 7. Or walking around London on a sweltering hot summer’s day aged 12 with the most unbearable itchy rash (the kind where it’s ALL you can think about) from a plaster I had worn the day before. To the beginning of this year, aged 27, when my face and neck broke out in a hives-like rash from using a particular brand of washing powder.

I find it kind of weird how, in our 21st century lives, these sorts of immune reactions have become something fairly unimportant, benign even. How many people just take an antihistamine or buy some cream when they get a skin reaction, hoping it’ll go away and not really worrying about what’s causing it? I know I was certainly guilty of that in the past. Use product – get rash – use another product to hide rash – repeat. But as I get older, and as I care more and more about truly looking after my body, these sorts of things really bother me. A rash is one way my body can tell me it’s not very happy with what I’m doing, and since I’m never going to get another body, it probably makes sense to pay attention to it.

There is a principle in yoga called Ahimsa, which roughly translated means “not to injure”. It is a core principle of yoga philosophy: non-violence, to any living beings. I remember my yoga teacher saying that Ahimsa begins within. First, do no harm to yourself. I feel like this is a principle that we have lost sight of in our fast-paced, hectic Western lives. We do whatever is cheapest, quickest and most convenient, rather than what is best for us. Fast food, 30 minutes on the treadmill, big brands at the supermarket, and pre-packaged toiletries full of nasties.

But the truth is, natural alternatives really don’t have to break the bank or take hours to prepare. And what’s more – they actually work! One of the first things I made when I started making my own products was deodorant. It is probably one of the quickest and most effective homemade products I’ve tried, so I thought it’d be a good one to share.

Off-the-shelf deodorant or antipersperant typically contains a whole host of ingredients with potentially damaging effects on the human body. As an example, the SkinDeep website shows that a Sure anti-persperant contains ingredients that studies have shown are associated with cancer, skin irritation, lung irritation, harm to unborn babies, hormone disruption, and many other things. My homemade deodorant contains 3 ingredients, all of which score a 1 (the lowest risk rating) on SkinDeep, and which, as far as I’m aware, have no evidence of any harmful effects at all.

Deodorant feels like quite a risky recipe to be the first to share on my blog. It’s pretty full-on hippy isn’t it, making your own deodorant? Plus, it’s not necessarily the kind of thing you want to experiment with. You have a bodged bottle of body wash or moisturiser and it’s really not the end of the world, but let’s face it, no-one wants to walk around smelling of BO.

I hear you. I was so sceptical that homemade deodorant could possibly do anything for my pits, that for the first two weeks of using it I carried my old deodorant around in my handbag, just in case I suddenly started smelling. But I have been using it for over a year now and can honestly say it is more effective than any shop-bought deodorant I’ve ever used, including the old brand I used to swear by that claims to prevent odours for up to 48 hours.

So here it is, my homemade deodorant!

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • 2 tablespoons bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tablespoons cornflour or arrowroot powder
  • Optional: 5-10 drops of essential oils (*see below for my favourites).

Method

    • Put the coconut oil in a small bowl and mash it up with the back of a spoon. Don’t melt in the microwave because it’ll reduce the effectiveness of the deodorant (I have no idea why this would be, but just trust me on this one…!)
    • Add the bicarbonate of soda and cornflour/arrowroot, and mix until you have a thick paste.
    • If desired, add a few drops of essential oils. My favourites are tea tree and peppermint oil because they have a fresh, clean scent, as well as having antibacterial & antifungal properties . I also often use citronella, which is a natural deodoriser.

Put the paste into a jar or container of some description. When you want to use, take a pea-sized blob and rub it into each underarm.

Voila! No stinky pits. If you try this out, let me know how you get on!

Living a natural lifestyle

The last couple of years, I’ve become more and more interested in learning about the chemicals in our environment and the effect they have on us. I remember the exact moment my interest began. I was catching up with a friend I’d not seen for some time (I really hope she’s reading this, she’ll know who she is!). One of the first things I said when I saw her was “wow, your hair looks great!” She replied “oh thanks, I’ve been doing no-poo!”. No-poo, she told me, does not involve chronic constipation, but is in fact short for ‘no shampoo’. And so began a long conversation about the no-poo craze, and my interest was sparked.

Shortly after that, I tried no-poo myself for a while. Just to clarify, it doesn’t require you to never wash your hair, but just to use things other than commerical bottles of shampoo and conditioner to wash your hair. It’s actually pretty incredible the things you can use – bicarbonate of soda, soapnuts, lemon juice, rye flour, and even raw egg! I have to confess that at this point in my experiments, as I had raw egg running off my hair and into the base of the shower, things started to feel pretty surreal, and it dawned on me – I was a hippy! I was that person I would previously have listened to with curiosity, nodding and smiling while secretly thinking to myself, why on earth doesn’t she just use shampoo?! But being on the other side of hippyness is suprisingly liberating and honestly, I’m proud of being a bit alternative!

As it happened, I didn’t get on that well with no-poo. I found it a lot of effort and was never quite happy with how my hair turned out. I now use so-called ‘low-poo’, which is a term often used to describe commercially-produced shampoo that contains no harsh ingredients. For anyone who’s interested, my favourite one by far is this one by Avalon Organics: http://www.avalonorganics.com/en/products/hair-care/shampoo/scalp-treatment-tea-tree-shampoo/

Through my experiments with no-poo, I started learning more and more about the various ingredients found in common products, including shampoo, shower gel, hand soap, washing powder, washing-up liquid, deodorant, makeup, perfume, and pretty much everything else that 21st century women (and men, but to a lesser extent I think) are assumed and almost expected to use. The more I learned, the less appealing my cabinet full of products became, and slowly I started to investigate more ‘natural’ alternatives. (I use quote marks for the ‘natural’ because I think we have become a bit obsessed with marketing buzzwords like natural, organic and chemical-free, when most of these things are still factory-produced and in reality, even so-called ‘natural’ ingredients are still chemicals, like bicarbonate of soda for example).

Regardless of the terminology we use, though, there is no denying the fact that hundreds of ingredients used in every-day products have proven negative effects on our bodies. If you’re interested in finding out more about the products you use, this website is a fantastic resource: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ It has products listed by brand, provides the individual ingredients in those products, what the research says about potential harmful effects of the ingredients, and then an overall traffic light system to show the perceived safety of the product. If you have a spare 5 minutes it’s well worth a look. I was gobsmacked the first time I checked it out.

As a person with chronic illness, it is hard not to care about this. We work so hard to achieve wellness: using medications, supplements, eating the right diet, researching our conditions… why would we want to risk ruining all our hard work so needlessly by using all these things? I don’t think this is unique to those with chronic illness though, and lots of my friends are becoming increasingly concerned about these same issues, and with that, people are showing an interest in the sorts of alternatives I use.

So I thought my blog is the perfect platform to share my thoughts and experiments with natural products. If one person, somewhere, has their interest sparked in the same way I did by my first ‘no-poo’ conversation, then I’ll be pretty damned chuffed. In particular, over the next few weeks I’ll start sharing some of my recipes for homemade products (starting with  deodorant, my absolute favourite homemade product!), and discussing the pros and cons of various shop-bought alternatives. If you have any of your own recipes you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you!