My Life

Four things I do when I feel an anxiety attack coming on

So, this year I’ve been anxious. Super anxious. Since my anxiety attacks started in 2014, I’ve been trying a few things to minimise impact. Anxiety can hit me any time – on the Luas, in work, on a night out – so having a few tricks up my sleeve helps.

1. DEEP BREATHING

Good breathing calms things down. Today, for example, I was on the Luas. Shamefully, I hadn’t eaten well before stepping out and while on the track I felt a little faint. The tram was becoming pretty loud and crowded, and we were only at Drimnagh. FML.

First my eyes went – usually the first sign of impending panic. I couldn’t focus on anything. Then my body felt heavy, but weak. My thoughts were let loose:

I’m going to faint. Oh God. I’ll collapse. What if I smack my head? I’m going to collapse.
I’ll definitely pass out. Why didn’t I eat properly? Oh no, no, no.

OKAY BREATHE, AILEEN.

These unhelpful thoughts are the staple of any anxiety attack, and the best way to tackle them, I’ve found, is by doing some deep breathing. For example, inhale to the count of five and then exhale to the count of seven. Make sure you breathe in all the way to your stomach – let it expand as you breathe in, contract as you breathe out.

2. PRACTISE MINDFULNESS

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A Year of Living Mindfully -Anna Black

Mindfulness means taking a few minutes a day to practise awareness by noticing the things around you. So much of your head space is consumed by what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow.

How present are you, honestly?

Some ways to be mindful: commute without headphones and listen to the sounds around you. I do this sometimes, on days when I can bear to be without music. I listen to footsteps, the engine of the bus, the hushed chatter around me. Everything that comes up.

It takes a little while, but this inconsequential noise does become a soothing soundtrack to my day. When I feel anxiety coming on I turn off the music, and try hard to notice my surroundings. Listening out for surprising sounds takes the edge off, I promise.

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I’ve had mixed success with colouring, but if it helps you then go for it…

3. EXERCISE – OR AT THE VERY LEAST, STRETCH

I’m a very busy English language teacher. If I’m not teaching, I’m correcting writing assignments or planning a lesson. While my head is off worrying about how lessons are going and what to do next, my body isn’t given a second thought.

So when I can, at lunch usually, I find an empty classroom to stretch – in order to reconnect with my body. I’ve also taken to doing pilates twice a week, and boxercise once a week (with the best trainer ever!). Even if I ditch these classes – sometimes I just can’t find the motivation to go – I still stretch. It helps.

If you can’t exercise or find time to stretch, get off the bus a few stops early – a tip from my doctor. Do anything to move your body during the day.You won’t regret it.

4. PRACTISE GRATITUDE

When you feel like your head is exploding and your world is ending, it’s easy to forget the good things – so remind yourself. The big things matter, of course, like family, friends and a home to live in. But it’s the small stuff that cultivates appreciation, I find.

On a daily basis, recall three good (and small!) things that make today different from yesterday. For example, today: I had a peaceful bus ride home without my headphones; when my dog saw me he jumped on my lap and started to lick my hand; and my family and I sat down to watch Gogglebox together.

By remembering the small temporary stuff you notice how different each day can be and end up keeping some nice things in your memory bank too.

***

So there. I hope that, if you do suffer from anxiety, you find or will find these things helpful to you. I also recommend trying CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The best thing I’ve done this year is see a counsellor.

Don’t think twice about it, just go.
Slán go fóill.

BOOKS THAT HELP

Mindfulness for Worries: Overcome Everyday Stress and Anxiety – Padraig O’Morain
Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig
A Year Of Living Mindfully – Anna Black
A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled – Ruby Wax

Food stories

A good morning – eggs, toast and smoked salmon!

On Thursday I went to my dietitian for our second appointment in two months. She said I looked much better than I did the first time she saw me.

“Your skin has cleared up,” she said as I wondered what that meant. I suppose I do get more pimples than most 27-year-olds. I had always put it down to being on the pill…

Anyway, she asked me how I got on.

Thinking for two seconds, I said: “Oh, fine, fine. You know I think I’m mostly surprised by the water. Ever since I started drinking a glass of it first thing, I don’t know myself! I don’t have as much headaches and I’m not as tired as I usually am. A friend in work actually said it looked as if I was ‘glowing’, which was very sweet of her to say. Foodwise, breakfast is a bit tough – I’m always running late so eating a good meal before I leave the house gets a bit stressful. The snacks you told me about are great! I must admit that I haven’t tried them all though. I want to stick to one or two of them and build a routine.”

Dietitian nods.

I continue: “… dinner’s been good. I’m eating a lot of vegetables and trying to get a protein in. Oh, and lunch! Well, I still just buy stuff. I don’t prepare my food – always a problem for me! But I’m getting three-veg-one-meat in every day. Oh! I think my favourite snack is my mozzarella, basil, tomato and spinach salad… I love it. I think that’s it. Sorry, I feel like I’m talking way to fast.” Breathe.

We talked for 30 minutes about breakfast – my aversion to preparing it and my plan to tackle it. She gave me a list of meals to try out. This morning I tried this:

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  • one slice of toast (wholegrain)
  • one egg, scrambled (with a bitta milk)
  • one portion of smoked salmon.

Yes, that’s right.
Not much preparation needed – love my dietitian! She’s so realistic.
She listens to me.

Procedure

  1. Take new wholegrain bread that you bought yesterday after 10 minutes scrutinising the bread department in Dunnes Stores and put one slice in the toaster.
  2. Get a bowl. Crack an egg. Pour a little milk. Add a pinch of salt. Beat.
  3. Put in microwave for 30 seconds, take out, beat.
  4. Do this three times until egg looks light and scrambled.
  5. Find the smoked salmon you bought along with said wholegrain bread and cut a piece from it. Nestle it carefully on the toast that has since popped up toasted.
  6. Put the scrambled egg beside the bread and salmon.

Voilà.

That was a play-by-play of my morning. Am I supposed to still feel hungry? Was it normal to always feel full after each meal? I’ll ponder these things over snack 1 of the day: berries.

Slán go fóill.

My Life

Moving forward

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Me dressed as the original Harley Quinn for Halloween in school last month. Who says dress up is just for kids?

I’m back blogging, kinda.

Nearly two years ago I changed this blog from ‘public’ to ‘private’ – not because I lost interest, but because I ran out of things to say. Still, every November I renewed my website, not really knowing why.

Back in February 2015, I was in Brussels working in the media monitoring department of the European Council in the EU. I was a trainee. I loved it. Though I was stressed, I was happy. Five months later I was back in Dublin preparing for a teaching job I had applied for during my traineeship.

I had given up on a career in journalism. To this day I regret nothing.

Being a journalist meant judging people and situations, sitting at a computer all day agonising over the best way to sell the news, asking awkward questions, getting people to talk to me even after they said they didn’t want to.

I forced myself to keep going.
To keep at it.
It just wasn’t in my blood.

The moment I acknowledged these statements, it all changed.

Now I’m an English language teacher. I love it more than any of the other jobs I’ve had. A year and a bit in, I know it’s where I want to be. Every day I go to school, see my students and we just have a ball. A good job is made up of good people.

And yet, this blog – initially used as a way to promote my journalism – has always been in the back of my mind, waiting to be utilised again.

I’m not sure what it’s for now. My teaching? Personal stuff?
I don’t know, but it’s great to be back. Slán go fóill.

My Life

Ready, s-s-set, go… you’re on!

Mock news reporting... terrified then too!
Mock news reporting… terrified then too!

So I’m doing a voiceover next week and I’m pretty nervous about it. It’s my second chance behind the microphone in recent weeks.

I have a stammer, a stutter. To some, what I have is a speech disorder. Mostly, though I view it as an adorable little throat stall that makes my eyes twitch and my mouth speak sidewise.

Words come out in bits, with visible force, and sometimes mid-sentence I’m forced to abandon a word I want to use for something less troublesome – so reading from a script next week will be quite an effort for me. I’ll be wrecked after it.

Among friends and family I can speak fine, but when I’m put on the spot I get a little flustered and self-conscious, which spurs on the sound repetitions. Sometimes just making my speech look free-flowing and natural is hard. Like this:

It’s taken me years to find my appearance during a particularly bad flow of stammering endearing. The spluttering, spitting, choking sounds and the minor facial tick… they don’t exactly shout come-hither sex appeal.

Still, I wouldn’t trade my guttural blocks and stalls for anything.

It’s the fabric of my life, my personality. It wasn’t that long ago that teachers and classmates thought I was “stupid” or “slow”, that there “must be something wrong” with me for how I speak. Of course as a teenager all that’s upsetting to hear. (Hilariously, looking back, I was once told I wouldn’t go far in life because I couldn’t speak as fast as everyone else – how bizarre.)

But accepting myself doesn’t objectively help me speak clearly on the radio. Though I’ve been practising my script all weekend I just cannot control my voice. I never could, though I’ve improved a lot. Like this:

See how much better I got? (The speaking bits in the video just took five takes!) A few slight drawls here and there, but nothing that would demand a do-over.

I want to use my voice professionally. I want to sound clear. I want to slowly enunciate without the fear of losing my nerve mid-word. I don’t want to have to outrun my stammer anymore, hurrying my voice so I can trick my brain into thinking it can’t stop me. Finally, most importantly, I want my convictions to sound convincing.

Sadly, I don’t know if my ability to do this voiceover is greater than my honest desire to do it. Last week, my first chance behind the microphone, I didn’t sound convincing enough for the radio producer to want to use my tape… I was mortified.

I’ll keep going over my lines until Voiceover Day. Until then, send me good vibes, everyone?

Travels

First week in Bruxelles

So I left Dublin this day last week, and flew to Brussels to begin my five-month traineeship at the EU. It’s been a weird week.

I started work immediately, on Monday, having decided straight away that I’d need work to take my mind off the stress of finding somewhere to live. I know loads of people choose to move over the week before a new job starts, but I know myself more: hanging around a hostel with little else than flat hunting to occupy my mind would certainly have had me breaking down more this week – yes, more, that’s right.

I guess forgot how difficult it is to leave home and set up somewhere new, alone. I’d done it for Strasbourg in 2013, but my then-boyfriend was a hugely positive influence on my mood. Put simply, he was my crutch. But now I really am alone, in Brussels, living in a hostel in a dodgy part of town.

So it was no surprise to me that more often than not, after work, I’d come back to my room and just sob for a while. Call it a tactical weep or a power cry, I just couldn’t get through the day without a good ol’ sturdy bawl.

But don’t worry, I love to cry. Honestly. I swear. I’ve been told by many that I’m “mad” for liking a good cry, but releasing that energy that way helps. It’s an amazing stress reliever and most times, after my red, puffy cheeks go back to being pale and soft, I just go put the kettle on and start watching 30 Rock again – suits me fine!

This week was all of the above.

Making dinner alone was the worst bit though. There was no Charlie circling my feet as I, domestic Goddess, negotiated the pots ‘n’ pans. There was no dad dropping in to check the dinner, and quietly lowering the temperatures because he’s convinced I’m making my food “too high”. Even writing about home leaves a little lump in my throat. But by Tuesday / Wednesday my mood picked up.

I forced myself to chit-chat with other travellers and I got talking to Tamika, a sweet Australian media student. We’d spend dinner times together for a few days after that, perfecting our intermediate French and planning the next stop of her own adventure across the capitals of Europe.

Speaking French like that – actually stringing a sentence together and others understanding it – reminded me of why I’m here: to be in a multicultural environment, to help the EU, to be in medja, to learn more about a language and use it, and to meet new people. All of which I’m doing by being here.

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Roll on Friday and I’m meeting an old college friend Ross. He has invited me out to meet his new friends. The next day I take the metro to downtown to shop, explore Brussels and get the scoop on the nice places here.

And by the end of Saturday night it’s 6am and I’m waiting for the first metro to start up after a night out on the cobbles of Brussels. I’m having a laugh with a complete stranger who is also waiting for the first metro to come around so he can get home. We’re on opposite sides of the platform, just the two of us, (anyone decent would be in bed asleep by now!) just chatting away.

His name is Daniel, Belgian, French speaker. He’s 23-years-old and he’s doing law in college. He tells me all this willingly, in the hope that I’ll give him some deets about myself.

“So what’s your name?” he says.

“Ah,” I say playfully. “Guess.”

This delightful flirtingLITE carries on for about 15 minutes as we’re waiting for the trains to start.

“Come on, you’re not being fair EILeeneh, what do you do?” he asks at me. “Not telling ya, you’ll have to guess…” I reply.

“Come on. How do I contact you in the morning?”

“You don’t,” I say, him looking faux-forlorn. “This is fine as is. You’ll always remember this morning now.” I add.

He starts to bargain.

“If I guess what you did in college, will you give me your number? Your Facebook?” I promise nothing, but he tries hard to get the right answer.

“So you have a job in Brussels… you did politics eh?”

“European languages?”

“You’re a nurse!” His attempts to flatter are noted.

The electronic rail map lights up, signalling the first metro is on its way; time’s a tickin’. Will he get my details?

“Ahhh, you’re not fair!” he laughs, mock-exasperated that his efforts are going nowhere. “What did you do in college, come on?!”

“Not telling ya! SOZ!”

He doesn’t know what ‘soz’ means. Cute.

He assumed I was British, and when I tell him I’m Irish his eyes widen: “Are you a Sinn Féineh spyy?”

Seriously. A Sinn Féin spy. I can’t stop laughing at this. It endears me to him even more I think, but it’s too late, the shriek of the train is getting louder. Closer.

As his metro screeches to a halt he looks at me, pleading at me to tell him what I did in college so he can get my number.

Disappointed, he steps onto the train. I quickly bellow: “I’m a JOURNALIST!”

Passengers have gathered in the meantime, clueless as to why we’re howling at each other. To them, we must have looked like a new, blossoming couple parting ways at the end of the night.

Or mad people. Probably mad people.

“YOU’RE A JOURNALIST!!?!?!” He shouts in surprise.

Looking at me, he laughs; I do the same at him. And then the metro powers on. Most likely, we’ll never see each other again.

It’s another 10 minutes before my own carriage arrives.

I’m not sure if how I wrote this makes you think Daniel is a charmer or a creep, if I’m darling or a bit daft for a carrying a conversation on like this.

No matter.

It was a great way to end the always woeful first week of moving away somewhere. Here are some snaps of my life right now:

PS. Much of the good stuff this week came from loving work and trawling the internet for Eastenders memes and revelations. And 30 Rock. Speaking of which… slán! (Talking in Irish was also a wonderful focal point this week!)

My Life

That Bell Jar summer

A note about my favourite writer, Sylvia Plath.

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When people ask me who my favourite writer is, regardless of what’s reeled me in in the past, I always say Sylvia Plath. She’s the default.

She cannot be de-throned, not even for Stieg Larsson and his Millennium series, and that’s saying something.

It’s been like this since I read The Bell Jar one summer as a teenager.

I’d known about the 1963 classic for some time before I bought it. Probably through having to read her poetry in school. So during one of those typical teenage summers, when you’re too young to go out dancing, but too old to “play out”, I decided to buy it.

I’ve read it in full a few times over, since.

Oddly, I didn’t seek out more of Plath’s work. So it came as a shock to me last year to discover her unabridged 1950-1962 journals.

How to reconcile that you’re reading someone else’s diary

I don’t know if Plath would have wanted her diaries to be read by strangers. To level the field: when I die you can all take a gander at my own.

Concise passages like the following continue to have me hooked (I’m still the slowest reader of all time).

Observations like this:

“In her, beating loudly, strongly, was the neutral fact: the potent sex drive. It could be used for either her triumph or her downfall. It could be her most dynamic asset or her most tragic flaw. (Which? … the lady or the tigress? ten years should tell.)”

“And so I rehabilitate myself – staying up late this Friday night in spite of vowing to go to bed early, because it is more important to capture moments like this, keen shifts in mood, sudden veering of direction – than to lose it in slumber.”

“If I am going to be a woman, fine. But I want to experience my femininity to the utmost.”

“There was more small talk, more laughing, sidelong glances, more of the unspoken physical friction that makes each new conquest so delightful. In the air was the strong smell of masculinity which creates the ideal medium for me to exist in.”

“Now I’ll never see him again, and maybe it’s a good thing. He walked out of my life last night for once and for all. I know with sickening certainty that it’s the end.”

The unabridged journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. 

By reading Journals, I’ve come to appreciate how introspective I am; to relish in it, forgive it and embrace something I once thought destructive and pretentious.

What I feel when I read Plath

Simply put, I feel less alone in my own thoughts.

Years ago, my English teacher said she thought I was “over analytical”. It filled me with joy – finally, I thought, a name for what goes on in my head!

To speak vaguely for a second: I think of the future a lot, planning my steps ahead carefully, stressfully. I put myself under a lot of pressure to succeed. When it feels like I’m not progressing I begin to feel a little lost. And if I feel lost for long, my head gets a bit intense.

From reading Plath’s diaries, it’s comforting to know I’m not alone.

Her writing, too, how she constructed sentences, how she can create images in my own head from just a handful of well-placed words… well, I aspire to write like that.

She wrote with such honesty and conviction. It’s hard to do. The writing has to be ugly, critical and fearless. Journals is.

It’s a breath of fresh air, because when I’m writing alone in my diary, contrary to edited, re-edited and ‘safe’ blog posts, it still feels like I’m trying to hide from what I actually think – it’ll always be a work in progress, that.

Blasts from the past

Me as a 15-year-old; emotional, angry and not coping well with an intense crush.
A 15-year-old me struggling with a school crush

So I’ve been reading my old diaries (from 2006 onwards) recently. I rarely re-read after writing. In their current form, the entries are what they are: an honest angsty mess.

I’m surprised by the poetic license. Maybe being younger, a little more rebellious, I had the courage to write how I felt, regardless of what was appropriate.

Adorably, there are many entries on kissing. One entry, in particular, stands out. Let’s just say John Hughes had ruined my expectations!

I’d foregone that act of ‘meeting’ (Irish slang for kissing) and felt the horrible pressure of it in school, when everyone else was off ‘meeting the face off’ each other. I often wondered if I should have just met someone for the ‘craic’ and be done with it.

However, in a poignant entry I write with passion about how I want my first kiss to be and why kissing someone special is infinitely better than giving it away too easily. To thank Plath for making my life a little richer (and to mortify myself) my next blog post will be that diary entry.

My Life

Oh dog, I’ll miss our morning naps together

So I start my new job next month. There are many perks to being unemployed (lazy mornings, unrushed breakfasts, lounging about) but the drawbacks (no money, no plans, no fun) outweigh all that. There is, however, one thing I will miss when I go back to the wage packet: the company of my dog throughout the day.

My dog Charlie, on finding out I'm going back to work, not a happy pup
“Come again?” asks my dog Charlie, on finding out I’m going back to work (not a happy pup)

How to describe my Cavalier King Charles. Well. When my dad’s not around he thinks he owns the place. He’ll jump up onto the couch, roll around for a while (shedding his smelly dog hair indiscriminately in the process) and then settle into a tight ball for a nap – knowing full well that he’s not allowed on the couch at all. A cheeky one, he is.

I’ve had little to do since last year, when I came back to Dublin from my life in Strasbourg (a decision I wilfully made, but now consider a poor one, oh bygones), apart from writing scores of articles for newspapers in Ireland. I learned a lot of things last year about what it takes to be a news journalist: like, making calls to the police, who get cranky at your questions; like, reporting at funerals (grim); like, writing sensationalist opinion pieces with little or no time to comfortably fact-check or edit; and like, never being able to switch off. Mostly I learned that I don’t like doing these things.

Let me tell you, realising that what you’ve been working towards for the last six years has so far turned out to be… not so much fun or fulfilling is a right kick in the shins. Back to the drawing board.

So, having a quarter-life crisis and spending much of my time at home (to avoid spending much needed cash) I entertained Charlie. He’s five-years-old, we’ve had him since he was born and he has enemies left, right and centre – namely, the neighbours’ dogs and me, on occasion, when he rampages through the house barking madly (headaaaaache) after hearing just the slightest jingle of my keys and thinking I’m about to set him loose outside.

I’m a night owl and a dog owner, so I know what to expect in the morning: little undisturbed sleep. Like clockwork, at 8.40am he’ll start growling quietly, but audibly. Then he’ll run himself into the door a few times. He’ll go on barking then. Trying to get back to sleep is futile.

Adorably, after a brief run about outside he’ll grow tired of the fresh air ruffling his fur and tail and I’ll hear a few scratches at the door, signalling His Majesty would like to return to his castle. Then it’s nap-time in the sitting room; me under a blanket on the couch and Charlie by my feet… on the couch (maybe I’m the bad influence!)

I’ll miss this time with the dog. By midday we’re up and about and he’s playing guard dog by the window, shouting at complete strangers who dare walk by our garden. He’s a good egg really, but everyone, EVERYONE, outside the house is a villain.

Note the old duvet cover on 'his' side of the couch
Note the old duvet cover on ‘his’ side of the couch

I guess now what I’m looking forward to most is earning money after a hard day’s honest work and coming home to have himself greet me all excited at the front door. He does love how those keys jingle.

Do you miss your four-legged family member when you’re at work? How do you and your dog cope with the separation?