An Unconventional Medicine.

The difficulty in knowing how to deal with poor mental health is the fact that everyone’s case is very individual; everyone has different triggers, responses, and coping mechanisms. For me, my strongest coping mechanism is to write.

Writing about an upsetting situation helps me think about it logically and clearly. Converting emotions into words forces me to think through what happened stage by stage and piece together which bits are the most problematic. Watching the words appear on the screen in front of me helps me rationalise my reactions, allowing me to adopt the perspective of the reader reflecting on the choices of a character in a book. I don’t necessarily publish what I write in response to a tricky scenario either, although sometimes a passage will grow and develop into something I’m comfortable with others reading.

I picked up on this technique when I was having frequent accessibility issues at a building I used on a daily basis while at university, which despite my feedback and advice continued to occur, becoming increasingly frustrating as the months passed. Often I would come out of the building trying to hide the fact that my cheeks were flushed and I was shaking with anger, so nonchalant and disinterested was the response of the members of staff. I took to keeping a record of accessibility issues, when and where they occurred, and if possible who was responsible for an issue. About once a week I would submit this alongside an email reiterating my frustration to a more senior member of staff, but when that didn’t have an effect I took it to the highest level of management. The problem lingered but lessened significantly, and on my more recent visits I haven’t had any difficulties at all.

What I noticed was that keeping a record and writing an email about the incidents greatly helped calm me down, and while still annoyed and aware of the problem, I wasn’t fixated or brooding about it constantly. I decided I’d try this technique with other problematic scenarios, and was surprised to find out just how effective it was. The many issues I had faced at school concerning a lack of both physical and emotional support formed two blog posts, and my Twitter followers are bombarded with photographs of blocked access routes as I come across them. I found that while my memories of these cases are far from positive, I didn’t revisit these memories as regularly as I once did, and overall I simply felt happier. It worked.

If you want to try writing as a coping mechanism for difficult situations, it’s important to remember that no one ever has to see it. Computer files can erased, and paper can be shredded. It doesn’t need to be coherent, grammatically correct, or full or delicate vocabulary. It won’t work for everyone but it did for me, and it helped me put together something I feel truly proud of. Writing is my therapy.

Taking a Stand.

If you use Twitter and you haven’t seen the #AmbulatoryWheelchairUsersExist campaign then I’m offended, because that means you aren’t following me.

In all seriousness, that little phrase is being used across social media to raise awareness of wheelchair users who can sometimes stand and walk, usually with walking aids. I myself have a rollator, which is basically a cross-over between a Zimmer frame and one of those shopping baskets on wheels that are a pre-requisite condition of being a pensioner, with a seat to perch on when needed. This means that on the occasions where I am only going around the corner to post a letter or buy a pint of milk, I’m not dependent on my wheelchair.

There is an attitude that ambulatory wheelchair users are lazy attention-seekers, faking the severity of their illness to obtain additional financial support. The reality of the matter is that, as with any illness, some days are going to be better than others.

The first time I used my rollator was on a wild trip to the supermarket to pick up a few basic sundries. It was undeniably strange to feel the pavement beneath my feet; I was acutely aware of the bumps in the pavement, and the hotter temperature of the concrete exposed to the sunlight. I managed to maintain a slow, steady pace down the hill and round the shop, revelling in the luxury of being able to see what items were on the top shelves, and not have to become a contortionist to reach the items I wanted. I could even reach to the back of the refrigerator to select the freshest milk.

I went to the self-checkout, paid, and placed the packed shopping bag on the seat of my frame. Halfway up the hill a strong gust of wind sent my shopping sprawling across the street, and as I bent down to collect everything as quickly as I could, I was tutted at for being in the path of passers-by and absolutely no one offered to help. It was strangely reassuring to know that I was as invisible on the frame as I was in the wheelchair.

Since then I have used the frame on an almost daily basis, and on the whole I have enjoyed the freedom it has given me as single steps and curb drops are now climbable, if a little difficult. The only real difficulty I have faced is that, just like in the wheelchair, I am expected to go around other people, prams, groups stopped on the street, and even badly parked cars. In the wheelchair this is incredibly annoying, can greatly slow my progress, and often leaves me vulnerable to verbal abuse. On the rollator there are an extra two steps needed to move out of the way of someone who absolutely needed to respond to a message that instant, the rest of society be damned. Add up the number of times this can happen in one small street and I can end up walking an extra 10 – 20 steps. This sounds insignificant but with each extra step my muscles hurt more, my dizziness increases, and my body temperature rises at an alarmingly uncontrolled rate. This is one of the main reasons why I simply cannot use the rollator over long periods or distances without risking a serious relapse.

I might leave the flat one day in the wheelchair and then be using the rollator the next. This does not make me a fake, nor does it make me heroic for putting up with the pain. I’m just trying to live a little, and I am far from the only person doing so. Ambulatory wheelchair users do, in fact, exist, and we are going places (albeit very slowly).

Doctor Google.

As a nutritionist working in medical research, one of the banes of my existence is Dr Google. “I read an article that said-”, “But I found on the internet that-”, “I saw a video that suggested-”…

In this day & age it goes without saying that you cannot trust everything you read online (except for this blog, obviously), & that the advice of experts is even more valuable among this information overload. So, when I hear medical professionals bad-mouthing those who turn to the internet & self-diagnose, on many levels I agree with them.

However, perhaps we are too quick to judge the people who do this.

While I had an unusually quick diagnosis of Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (& that is not to say that the process is quick or easy even in these cases), I would go on to face other struggles. When I started showing symptoms of depression, complete emotional breakdowns, self-harm, & even a suicide attempt amongst them, I was refused a diagnosis of depression. It was just low mood. I was doing it for attention. Worst of all, these were symptoms of ME, a disease that was clearly all in my head. Apparently, a diagnosis would cause me to express more symptoms via some kind of placebo effect, but without a diagnosis I couldn’t access proper treatment. It was left to spiral further & further out of control until finally I was granted access to medication; medication I still use to this day.

A few years later I was experiencing sickness to the point where I couldn’t even keep water down, & was getting pains so furious it made it hard to breathe. I was given a diagnosis of gastroenteritis, even when the doctor admitted that the symptoms didn’t match this diagnosis, & I was sent on my way. Of course, the problems continued, & it took a junior doctor who hadn’t yet been trained to view all patients as stupid to do extra blood tests, which showed abnormal results. As I went for an ultrasound scan the nurse waxed lyrical about how I didn’t have gall stones, despite the symptoms & the blood test results pointing to exactly that. Surprise or the century; I had gall stones.

When they accidentally left a gall stone behind after removing my gall bladder because they decided not to perform a simple test, I returned with the same symptoms. I was disbelieved on all levels, & a doctor who never met me had my saline drip removed as he was adamant I should just drink more water. Drink more I did, but it only meant I vomited more back up. I was accused of being a fake and almost forced out of hospital still suffering symptoms which I was apparently making up, before finally a radiologist found the problem. A gall stone had been left behind, which I had been telling them was so for almost a week.

Currently I’m trying to get another diagnosis for something I’ve been dealing with for almost 11 years. It runs in the family & not only do I express the symptoms, but I’ve followed the exact developmental patterns it caused in my mother. GP after GP after GP refused to believe me, telling me it was just puberty, even at the age of 22. I finally got a hospital referral where the doctor believes it to be a psychological problem, & they “forgot” to give me another appointment until almost a year later I had had enough. I am still waiting for them to even do the diagnostic test.

We know our bodies best. We know how they normally feel & how they shouldn’t feel. We know when we’ve had enough. I have immense respect for the medical professional but when patients are sent away without answers, support, or even the hope of support in the future, of course they turn to the internet for help. People used to turn to witches or priests in exactly the same capacity.

I will follow the advice of a medical professional, but that presumes that I am given advice to begin with.

The Rejects: 6 Assumptions About Nutrition That Are Utter Bull.

Food and nutrition pops up in our news feeds every day, with someone claiming that eating carrots will make the sun shine out of our backsides, or that broccoli will obliterate all illness from the face of the Earth. There are several assumptions and clichés associated with the subject, leaving qualified nutritionists and dieticians rocking back and forth in the corner of a padded cell. As a recently qualified nutritionist who hasn’t been assigned a padded cell yet, I’m going to rant about these assumptions and hope that someone takes notice of me.

Nutrition isn’t a valid subject.

If I had a lollipop for every time someone said “oh that’s just eating your greens, right?” I’d be diabetic by now. Trust me, after (perhaps stupidly) spending 3 years and £27,000 to study the various ways of becoming diabetic, I would know. Taking a week long online course can give someone a basic overview of nutrition, but it’s a little insulting when that online course is equated with a degree, especially when that degree covers everything from food safety and legal requirements to physical chemistry and biochemistry. That isn’t even comedic hyperbole; it’s the truth.

Sports nutrition is the same thing as nutrition nutrition.

Before all the sports nutritionists start foaming at the mouth like one of their beloved protein shakes, I am not saying that sports nutrition is an invalid subject. It’s just a different subject.

While I would be able to give an athlete general advice on how much protein to eat from which foods, I wouldn’t be able to give specific advice where sport is concerned. This is primarily because my capacity for sports is summed up by my inability to throw a piece of paper in the bin that is less than a metre away from me, but also because I studied gross diseases that make for perfect dinner conversation. Where a sports nutritionist can give general advice about eating healthily, they might not be as clear on individual variations and needs such as diseases.

Supplements are the best thing since someone realised they could make money from them.

I don’t know how many times qualified medical professionals have to say this, but over-the-counter supplements are a waste of money. You excrete excess nutrients in your urine if you even manage to absorb them, so essentially you’ve created the planets most expensive piss. If you don’t absorb the nutrients, they’ll take an alternative route into the toilet. Many scientific papers also note that multivitamins only improve nutrient levels in the body when a relatively healthy diet is already in place, meaning that the supplements can’t be used as a fruit-and-veg replacement.

If that isn’t enough of an incentive to stop, how about the various means by which multivitamins can cause physiological damage when overused? Their overuse may even be a risk factor for obesity.

When supplements are prescribed by a doctor, they help to treat a deficiency in a particular nutrient, and are essential for recovery. Otherwise, in all honesty, save your money.

Anyway, if you wonder why the models and actresses on TV adverts for these supplements always look so glamourous and happy, I think you’ll find that make-up, Photoshop, and a big pay check have a lot to account for.

Weight Loss is Easy.

Aside from amputating a leg, there is no way to shift loads of weight instantly, and I’m not an advocate of unnecessary limb removal.

Starving yourself for rapid weight loss can result in all sorts of unpleasantness, such as bad breath and the inability to take a dump. Oh, and death. It can be down-right hazardous to health, which is the very opposite of what you’re trying to achieve by losing weight.

Think about it this way; if Weight Watchers actually worked, they’d go out of business. Their yogurts are great though. Seriously, they’re good.

Nutritionists are judging you.

In just about every scientific paper where dietary habits have been recorded, it is recognised that what is recorded may not be what was actually eaten. There are lots of reasons for this; short of weighing something it’s difficult to get accurate portion sizes, it’s easy to forget drinks and snacks consumed between mealtimes, and quite frankly, people lie.

When asked to record what they’ve eaten, people will often say they have eaten less of the typically unhealthy foods, and more of the typically healthy foods, than what they actually ate. They do this because they think a nutritionist would look at their actual diet and heartlessly berate them until they started crying. In reality, the more accurate information the nutritionist receives, the more they’ll be able to provide help. Everyone makes mistakes or bad choices concerning food at some point, partly because there are so many social, commercial, and biological factors controlling food intake that it is impossible to control them all.

Nutritionists aren’t judges; they’re food-doctors.

Nutritionists eat nothing but raw broccoli.

Having dedicated three years of my life to studying food, I think the conclusion that I really like food is plausible. In particular, I like cake.

Somewhat strangely, people always manage to catch me sinking my teeth into a big, sugary, creamy, diabetes-inducing slice of chocolate gateau, and then call me a hypocrite (or sometimes just a hippo). I get told I shouldn’t eat it because I’m a nutritionist. Clearly they have failed to realise that nutritionists are actually human beings with the same nutritional needs as everybody else, and therefore are also capable of eating cake without dying immediately in response to inorganic glucose touching our delicate lips.

What they also don’t realise is that I am actually making a great sacrifice for humanity by eating cake. In doing so I am reducing the availability of cake for everyone else, removing temptation from their path. It truly is a great sacrifice to make for the benefit of society and has absolutely nothing to do with the affinity of my taste buds to cake.

Nutrition is a nerdy subject for nerds who like to eat, and I honestly can’t think of a better example of leaving it to the experts. Actually, nuclear physics springs to mind. Yeah, definitely don’t want amateurs playing with nuclear equipment; we all know what happened the last time someone did that…

The Corridor.

When you start a new job there’s a lot to think about; being in the right place at the right time, sorting out the paperwork, & introducing yourself to the total strangers you’ll spend 35 hours a week with. If you are disabled then there’s even more to think about. Unsurprisingly one of the things that concerns disabled employees most is accessibility.

I’m lucky to have an employer who took great care to ensure that I had all of the tools I would need to do my job. In fact, the only part I cannot do independently has nothing to do with my disability, & has everything to do with the fact that even when balanced precariously on a stool, I’m too short to reach the top shelf of the 2 metre tall cabinets.

In fact, the biggest obstacle to overcome didn’t occur in the office at all, but in getting to & from my work.

The building I work in is huge. It has 8 floors, not counting the secret underground laboratory where we’re teaching rabbits to wear flat caps & talk with a Yorkshire accent. Despite spending many hours in there as a student, & now working there, I get lost looking for anything beyond the rooms we commonly use, & the café which is nowhere near the rooms we use, but I just so happen to know where it is anyway. Oh, & then there’s the great big hospital we’re attached to.

There are 3 reasonably-sized lifts available to everyone who uses the building. Most people were more than accommodating when it came to lift access, but it only took a few arrogant tossers for me to spend 5 minutes waiting for the lift to come back around only to find it full again. I left enough time to account for this, but even then, I could be late into the office.

I raised this as an issue & much to my surprise, instead of being called a whinger I was granted access to a fourth lift that only people with a key could get to. You had to have the key to enter the corridor, & then had to use it again to operate the lift. It basically guaranteed me a spot in the lift whenever I wanted.

The problems arose because the cleaning staff, who were based along this new route, were not accustomed to wheelchair users. The corridor was frequently blocked. I asked politely to keep a route clear but was told it couldn’t be helped, so I told them that they would move it or there would be trouble. Naturally there was trouble, when I shared this photograph with the building manager:

The lift blocked by crates, boxes, trolleys, & all manner of cleaning equipment.

In all fairness to the team, it’s not happened since. Although, as it transpired, I had won the battle but not the war.

Next came the cleaner who, with good intentions, asked if I needed help getting through the double doors. I politely declined but was ignored, & the door was wrenched from my grasp resulting in a minor shoulder injury. Some might say I should just accept the help, but I despise the notion that I am not human enough to know my own capabilities or that my words are just hot air.

Even after this, my biggest obstacle was yet to come.

It was a Friday night & I was leaving the office. I entered the lift alone, my key dangling around my neck on a lanyard, which I used to select Floor 4 (which is one of the ground floor entrances alongside the other on floor 7. As I said, it’s a weird building and it’s also on a steep hill). The lift stopped at floor 5 and a porter pushed a large trolley into the lift.

“Where are you going?” he asked as if he couldn’t see the number 4 glowing.

“Floor 4,” I returned.

“No, you’re not,” he smirked.

“Um…yes, I am,” I responded sharply.

“There’s no way out there.”

“Yes, there is.”

“But you need a key.”

“You mean like the one dangling around my neck that you need to be able to operate the lift we’re in?”

Apparently, he was only being nice. He only asked a question because he had assumed that I didn’t know where I was going in the building on the route I used twice daily, 5 days a week. This fails to address why, once I’d told him where I was going (as if that was any of his business in the first place), he persisted to ignore my responses and undermine me with blunt statements.

Encountering this attitude once was bad enough, but it happened a second time, & a third time, & then a fourth. Before long I’d lost count. Despite the plethora of evidence which included my key, my staff badge, & buttons already pressed in the lift, I was frequently told that I didn’t know what I was doing & I shouldn’t be there.

My employers are doing all they can to stop this. All staff undergo extensive Equality & Inclusion training, & there are working groups & committees in place, several of which I am a member of. Signs have gone up by the lift alerting people that wheelchair users can use this route, asking others to be considerate. None of it has worked.

I do not blame this on my employer, nor is it a reflection of their attitude. It is instead a reflection of the general attitude towards disability displayed by the populace. It is the culmination of the stereotype that we are helpless individuals worthy only of pity. It stems from the hatred we face for relying on government funding that allows us to access the equipment we need to be able to work. Even if it is subconscious, in just one short corridor, I have encountered more ableism than I ever will in my actual job.

There is, however, one small thing that they have not accounted for; tyre tracks on their shoes will be the least of their worries if they get in my way.