Unpolished Journey

It’s nearly two years since I ‘came out’ about my mental health, and one of the most amazing outcomes of being brave and speaking up is that people have started to approach me to share their stories. It’s an amazing privilege when someone tells you their struggles, that they trust you to open up to you. Not too long ago I got an email from Emily and Morgan, the creators of Unpolished Journey, an e-commerce platform specifically for creators who’ve used their art to manage their mental health. Morgan in particular was keen to share her story of using creativity to share how creativity has, in her words, defined her recovery journey. Of course I couldn’t refuse…

Unpolished Journey - creativity and mental health recovery - A Pretty Place To Play

I spent a lot of time in the dark. Dark rooms filled with Kleenex from tears releasing years of suppressed emotions, dark bathrooms purging out those feelings in attempt to numb them once again, and dark headspaces filled with hopelessness and exhaustion from the years of fighting my mental illness. I was sick, head sick with an eating disorder and PTSD, and at the time I felt like there was no way out. I felt trapped in a tunnel of darkness with no ladder or rope. I was just there floating in my pain, feeling alone and forgotten.

Art is unique in so many ways. I am convinced that art comes straight from a person’s entire body’s experience. It tells a story of where each person was at a moment in time - their thoughts, their desires, their fears. It is a compilation of everything within that person being purged out for the world to see. Art is personal. Writing, painting, photography, dance, drawing, videography, textiles, and so many other forms of creativity have literally been created from someone’s mind.

Did you know that listening to music is the only time that you use your entire brain? Your whole mind is consumed with the melodies and lyrics. It is a deeply personal experience, which is why I never critic anyone’s music preferences. Those songs are theirs. They speak to them in a way I’ll never understand, which is beautiful and something I don’t feel worthy to have an opinion on. In the same way that music is uses your entire brain, I have a theory that the creation of art uses your entire body.

I came up with this theory through the evidence spilling across the pages of my sketchbooks. I spent a lot of time in the dark and my artwork reflects this - scribbles of dark images, filled with red monsters, and terrifying compositions.  I look at these images and my body remembers. It remembers the pain, suffering, and struggle that I was consumed with during that time in my life. I used every part of myself to purge creations onto those pages. It was my release, my singular way of documenting to the world what it was like to be trapped inside my brain. As the years past and I began to receive help for my mental illnesses a narrative of healing began to unfold.

Slowly those images began to gain color. The black and white scribbles starting taking shapes. Birds symbolizing a reach towards freedom, water symbolizing renewal, and trees symbolizing growth became common motifs among my work. I gained strength both physically and mentally as I began to nourish my body and mind with words of hope and meals of kindness. My artwork reflected this. As the years of recovery would pass, my artwork became more and more free. Rainbow colors and playfulness entered into my sketchbook as I fell deeper into the person I was created to be. This became my evidence that my creativity matched my body’s experience. As my soul grew healthier so did my artwork. My body remembers. It remembers everything and the artwork that spilled out of my soul throughout the years documents my body’s narrative.

Art is unique in this way. It is a deeply personal act of vulnerability as it documents a person’s journey through life. My evidence comes from my own recovery journey. My creativity is a full body experience, leaving behind stamps on the world defining healing and change. Art became my unique means of sharing with the world what my recovery actually looked like.

Unpolished Journey - creativity and mental health recovery - A Pretty Place to Play

Unpolished Journey is a community of artists seeking to share their stories of recovery from mental illness through art. Unpolished Journey has launched a marketplace where artists of any medium who have a story of recovery can sell their work to the world and share pieces of their journey along the way.

The Endurance Mind

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It's less than a week to go until London Winter Run 2018 and for everyone who has been training the hard yards are done, you've got the miles under your feet and the hard work is done. Right? Last week I was lucky enough to catch up with one of my favourite coaches, Tom Craggs, to chat about one aspect of training we often overlook - mental preparedness. I am such a nerd when it comes to the psychology of endurance training, it's a huge part of my marathon training plan, so I wanted to share some of the gems Tom shared with me about how to hone the endurance mind - you never know, it might help you hit that PB this Sunday! 

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The Mind-Body Connection

How you think has a physical impact, and anxiety can be a real barrier to performance. There's a theory called 'The Central Guvner Theory' which explains this pretty well, in short we all have a point that we can push ourselves to before a subconscious 'off' switch kicks in. This point differs from person to person, but as we live in an increasingly risk adverse society the STOP is likely to kick in a little bit sooner than needed - which means we never quite reach our potential. Handy in some situations, but less so if you're running a race and want to smash it! 

Although running is often consider to be an activity that reduces stress, it can end up being quite the opposite because of all the external pressures that can swirl around us, whether it's sharing on social media or friends asking how fast we run! All this stress can be detrimental to our performance and increase our risk of injury. So we need to find a way to manage it, while also making sure our internal governance system doesn't jump the gun!

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Mastering Your Mind

The trick is to master your mind - which sounds terribly Derren Brown, but is more achievable than you think, if you practice! There are a few different hacks you can use to achieve this: 

- the power of positive memory (association): there's something really affirming about being able to remind yourself that you've done something before, so you can do it again! Keep a training diary and think about the context around runs that have gone well - where was your head at, what happened that day. Not only can you remind yourself of previous successes, you can also create a recipe of conditions for future success. Did you know that Paula Radcliffe used to count to 300 while running? It was the equivalent of a mile (well, in the world of elite marathon runners, I'd have to count to a much higher number!) and was her way of focusing on the task at hand and staying in the moment.

- self talk: it sounds mega cheesy, but be your own cheerleader! British people aren't good at this, it's a cultural thing, so take a moment to step out of your comfort zone and big up yourself. There's a few different ways you can support yourself through a race, whether its using mantras or positive affirmations, or reminding yourself of positive past experiences, either way harness the power of your mind and don't let your subconscious put you down.

- the power within you (centering): I was chatting to a friend about this at the weekend, but one of the greatest things you can do for yourself as a runner is to return to zero and centre yourself. For me this means getting my posture in check - making sure I'm upright and have good form pulls me back to a positive place, but for other people it could be getting their breathing under control. Whatever it is, it's those little tricks that get you back in the game when the going gets tough.

- self transcendent moment: take yourself out of the spotlight for a moment and remember the big emotional reasons why you run. What led you to running? For me it was overcoming a really difficult situation in my personal life, and each time I run I give a little prayer of thanks for how far I've come, all thanks to running. It could be that you're raising money for a charity that's important to you, and each mile you run brings you closer to that important goal, so you keep that in mind and use it to motivate you through tough moments. Another trick is to dedicate each mile to someone important in your life, and you want to run the best you can for each special person.

- psychological planning: this is all about building a pre-race routine that works for you and leaves you feeling focused and positive. It takes a bit of trial and error (like all these tips here), but once you've worked out the formula that works for you it's rinse and repeat to success! 

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All these tips take a bit of practice, and there's no one size fits all, but once you've mastered your mind and worked out what works for you, then you'll be flying! Remember, we're all performance athletes, and psychology is an important part of making it happen and enjoying your sport!

**I'm an ambassador for London Winter Run and would like to thank them for the opportunity to catch up with Tom and talk all this through.

**image: Anna Rachel Photography

2017 In Reveiw

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2017 has been a bit of an epic year, so much has gone on and my life has changed so much that I reckon I'd forget it all if I didn't write it down (and even then I imagine there'll be things that I forget!).

I came out about my mental health

In January, after a tricky few months where my anxiety had become increasingly debilitating, I made the decision to start taking medication to help manage my anxiety. It was something that I'd avoided for a long time, but as things became worse I decided it was time to try something different. It was a massive turning point for me and I finally felt like I was taking real ownership of my health, which really encouraged me to start talking more openly about my condition. The other thing that got me to open up was the reaction I had to the first type of medication I was prescribed! At the time I wasn't actually that fazed, probably because I was so out of it, but over time I've really started to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. However, it hasn't put me off medication - nearly 12 months on I am still taking meds to manage my anxiety, and I am likely to continue to do so for awhile to come. The thing about anxiety medication is that it isn't as simple as popping a pill and you're better. You need to work closely with your doctor to find the right treatment for you, including which of the many medications available might/might not be a good fit. I've never been shy about my love for the NHS, but in the last year the treatment I've received has been amazing - caring, compassionate and crucially empowering, and it's that sense of empowerment that has prompted me to talk more and share my experiences, which you can read more about here.

Taking ownership of my mental health has changed my whole approach to life, and in turn that's helped me handle my condition more effectively. I now talk and write openly about pretty much everything, I think about the relationship between food, fitness and mental health and I try to always be an ear for anyone who might feel a little overwhelmed by their feelings. It has also led me to new friends and new ventures, like The Mental Health Podcast. I can't wait to carry this radical honesty into the future and see where it takes me next. 

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I changed my approach to running

For most of this year running hasn't been a priority. Between finishing up my MSc and starting a new job (plus getting to grips with my health) my mind has been elsewhere, and you know what, that's ok. Towards the end of 2016 I was really struggling with guilt around not running, or not running enough, or not running in the right way, and it massively got me down. Towards the end of the year I'd run into Tom Craggs at an event and he gave me a bit of a pep talk, reminding me that running doesn't always have to be the priority and that for now I need to focus on other things. I don't think Tom has any idea how much those words helped me change my perspective, and that really took the pressure off! By allowing myself the freedom to be ok with not running (despite being a running blogger, shock horror!) I naturally found my way back to it, not least because my lovely friend Alex introduced me to Chasing Lights Collective.

Chasing Lights, my running family! I am so grateful I found this posse of rat bags this year. They say surround yourself with positive people, and this year I've discovered that really works. Community, celebration and support have all been part of my journey back to running, and I cannot wait to see where this community takes me next. Big love. 

Although running wasn't the top priority this year I did manage to get one big challenge it - #2x10k! Two races, two cities, one weekend, and it was epic! I had so much fun and really discovered the benefits of strength training as a runner. You can read all about it here.

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I found my blogging mojo

While I was studying I found it really hard to balance work, blogging and studying. It wasn't necessarily a time issue, I just didn't have the headspace to think creatively. Much like I did with running this made me feel massively guilty for ages, and then, much like I did with running, I let it go. Giving myself space allowed my passion for sharing to come back, big time, and I'm actually now more invested in my blog than ever before. 

I got an MSc

After two years of working my nuts off (to use my Dad's preferred phrase) I finished my MSc. Handing in my thesis in September marked the end of juggling work/studying/life and all the stresses that came with it. I can hands down say that my MSc is my proudest achievement, particularly my dissertation, not just because I scored a distinction, but because it was the first academic research to look at the identities and representations of women in ultra running and there's something really special about being the first!

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I moved in with a boy

A pretty significant change this year was that after more than two years together Mike and I moved in together! It was a huge step for me having come out of a really difficult relationship a few years before and not being quite sure if I really wanted to risk moving in with a boy again. However I can say with absolute conviction that it was the right thing to do and we're really happy together (although I do miss living with Emma in the lady cave). 

Life feels like it's in a really good space right now. I am happy and I am well (or 'coping well in the world' as my doctor likes to say). I have plans and I'm excited to see what 2018 brings, but more about that next week!

** All image: Anna Rachel Photography