Strength

It’s been a year since I joined my local JD gym in Preston and started strength training sessions with a personal trainer and I’m writing this post to share some of the benefits this has brought to both my physical and mental health.

As background I have run on and off since my early twenties as a way of keeping fit and managing my anxiety. However, I have struggled to maintain running longish distances due to a variety of issues such as runner’s knee and problems with my piriformis and hamstrings.

Over a decade ago a physio recommended strengthening my legs to help with my knee pain by doing squats and lunges but this seemed to make my knees worse and I gave up on this course of action and running for a while.

Since starting sessions with my excellent personal trainer, Marie Meagher, I have learnt that I am perfectly capable of doing squats and lunges. Initially my form was incorrect and, with her help correcting me, I have progressed to learning a variety of different forms (sumo squats, split squats, reverse lunges) and to adding weights such as kettle bells, dumb bells and bar bells. 

She has also helped me learn to use the resistance machines and free weights. When I first started at the gym all the cogs and pullies and weights and fastenings were utterly bewildering and I didn’t understand the exercises or know much about my muscle groups and the best ways of working them. 

I can now put together an effective workout incorporating a variety of exercises such as leg extensions, hamstring curls, hip adductions and dead lifts for my lower body or dead rows, chest and shoulder presses, and assisted pull-ups for my upper body. I know what weights to use, the right techniques, how many reps to do.

Strengthening my legs has worked wonders for my running. Before training, the most I had been able to run was 4, 7, and 10 miles a week with the occasional half marathon which usually left me crippled for a couple of days. I am now running 7 and 9 miles and a half marathon every week and have taken 15 minutes off my half marathon time from 2hrs 10 mins to 1hr 55 mins. 

I’ve also noticed the difference that doing exercises for my upper body, abs, and core has made when I’m doing outdoor work in my local green space or gardening.

It is now rare that I suffer from any of my former issues either during or after a run. Another big help has been finding a good physio, Phil Noblett at South Ribble Physiotherapies, who has been brilliant at sorting out my minor injuries and keeping me running. It’s been a big revelation that some of the niggles I’ve had are simply due to lactic acid build up and can be massaged out.

Learning about my different muscle groups, how to work them, and discovering muscles I didn’t know I had has provided me with much better knowledge of my body and a more positive and mindful relationship with it. 

My successes with strength training and running have also improved my mental health. Being physically stronger helps me feel mentally stronger and and provides me with a source of accomplishable achievements when I’m struggling in other areas of life due to limits with my autism and anxiety.

I have found both are better antidotes to stress than alcohol or overeating and am far less likely to do either as I know they will have a detrimental effect on my training.

Although I will never run record beating times or lift heavy weights it is an accomplishment, at the age of forty, to be the strongest and fittest I’ve ever been.

*With thanks to Marie for taking the photographs as this morning’s PT session.

Of Worldly Career and Spiritual Vocation

So it reaches an end. The trajectory that began with volunteering on local nature reserves, took me into paid work restoring the Manchester Mosslands, and eventually led to me working for a local ecological consultancy on developments across the North West. 

Whereas my choice to work in conservation was guided my Gods, when my traineeship reached its end, and no conservation positions came up, I chose my ecology job because it was local, permanent, well paid, and offered financial security, and because I had a good interview and liked the people.

I knew next to nothing about ecology, the high pressure environment, how distant some of the sites would be, or how badly working nights would affect my mental health. I hadn’t thought through how I’d feel about working for developers, some just people who needed a bat survey for an extension on their home, but others who wanted to build on green spaces and nature reserves.

Working just one night a week, the dread beforehand and the tiredness afterwards, had a massive impact on my mental health due to my need for a regular routine and sleep pattern as an autistic person who suffers from anxiety. 

This, combined with travelling to sites over an hour’s drive away, and learning to write technical reports and mastering an unneccessarily complex and counterintuitive mapping system called QGIS whilst, at the same time, organising surveys, preparing quotes, and replying to clients, swiftly led to stress and burnt out.

Within a matter of weeks I went from being a happy, fit, and confident person with hopes of excelling in botany, pursuing an MSc in ecology, and running an official half marathon to being unable to read academic articles or comprehend the logistics of getting to a run or navigating the crowds.

I started waking early in the morning in tears and crying until I went to the gym or on a run and somehow cried all the way through a run on a very bad day.

I turned up in tears, managed to get on with my work, in spite of the crushing feeling in head, which increased as the day went on and throughout the week. I drove the wrong way up to M62 and through a red traffic light. I got hopelesssly muddled on a survey and drew the map the wrong way up. One day my brain melted to the point I couldn’t recall what a PDF was.

My manager took me off nights and I stayed because I liked the team, who were kind and supportive, because I didn’t want to let them down, because it was my mistake for rushing into what was the wrong job but right location and people.

I didn’t speak much to my Gods at first. But when drinking ceased to cure my troubles and I realised it was doing me more harm than good, both in my work life, and strength training and running performance, I began to pray. 

I began to seek a place of retreat and healing as respite from an overwhelming world. “Remember who you are,” said Gwyn, recalling me to my vocation as an awenydd, as Sister Patience, as a nun of Annwn.

Somewhat laughably, as is often the case of Gwyn, at a time when I was craving financial security due to fear of losing my job, He told me do the thing least likely to make money in the world – “build the Monastery of Annwn”.

Yet His imperative, my vocation, could not be ignored. I have set up the Monastery of Annwn as a virtual space; started laying the foundations in terms of daily devotions, a ritual year, and practices such as journeying to Annwn and tending Creiddylad’s Garden; and begun dialogue with others.

Desiring to partake in lectio divina and lacking an Annuvian creation myth I have been inspired to return to writing one – a pursuit I began a couple of years back with a book called The Dragon’s Tongue, which didn’t work out. 

This attempt to weave a new creation story, from the perspective of the Annuvian Gods, from the existing Welsh and Irish myths and also drawing on the Mesopotamian epic ‘Enuma Elish’ and the Bible has been renewed as ‘In the Deep’ (the antithesis of ‘When On High’ – the translation of ‘Enuma Elish’). 

In returning to devotional writing I have found deep joy, which has dissipated as soon as the stresses of work and worldly career have got in the way. 

This positive discovery/recovery combined with the knowledge that, as an autistic person, I am not suited to full time high pressure work, has led to the decision to hand in my notice at my ecology job and seek less stressful, part time work in conservation or horticulture that will allow me to fulfil my vocation.

It has been a relief and a release. Although I have two months’ notice to work I have a myth to tend, a monastery to build, and can find solace at my altar and in Creiddylad’s garden, where the bees are loving the blue geraniums and the foxgloves I grew from seed last year are looking magnificent.

Lockdown – life in a bubble then… pop!

For me the lockdown has been a safe bubble and has had a number of benefits. I’ve had the opportunity to cultivate a better relationship with my immediate reality at home, where I live with my parents. I’ve been doing more gardening and this has included food growing. We are now self-sufficient in lettuce, green vegetables, and fresh herbs. This has fitted with having more time to cook with them, to make tasty meals from scratch, my favourites being pea and mint soup and minty lamb stew.

The raspberries long ago strayed from their patch and ramble freely around the garden and they have gifted us a brilliant crop this year in spite of the rain.

I’ve had the time and space to begin repairing my mental health. I’ve struggled with anxiety all my life and, since my late teens, used alcohol as a way of self-medicating. I stopped drinking in January and, over the last few months, have completed a series of counselling sessions through the Minds Matter service.

This has resulted in me finding out that the source of my anxiety is likely having Asperger’s and that’s why I struggle with loud, noisy social situations, whether in public or online, and thrive on time alone or in quiet company, working on the land, in devotion to my gods, and nurturing my creativity.

In the place of alcohol, which obliviated my worries only temporarily, I’ve developed some worry management strategies. This has included keeping a worry diary and assessing whether a worry is practical or hypothetical. If it’s practical I have problem solving techniques to deal with it, and if hypothetical, a technique of setting it aside for a worry period so it doesn’t interfere with the rest of my day. This has made my worries seem less overwhelming thus I’m less worried about worry itself. Other small dietary changes like excluding caffeine and cane sugar have helped too.

The most major result is the realisation that my mental health limitations make it more important to focus on my gift – my awen, my creativity. This has led to my next book, The Dragon’s Tongue, in which I explore a myth of origins personal to me and my deities.

From the safety of my bubble I’ve been watching the lockdown ease. The shops, the hairdressers, the pubs opening, the traffic building up. I barely ever buy clothes, decided to clip my hair off, have stopped drinking, and rarely borrow my dad’s car, preferring to walk or cycle, so this hasn’t affected me much (although the busyness of the roads has made walking and cycling more unpleasant).

Yesterday, however, my bubble finally went pop. I cycled to Brockholes Nature Reserve for the first time since its reopening for a walk. My long term plan for finding paid work that doesn’t have a negative impact on my mental health has been getting a job in conservation which involves working outside alone or in the quiet company of other staff and volunteers. I was due to begin an internship at Brockholes to gain the necessary experience before the lockdown began and it was postponed.

On arrival I was pleased to see the meadows in flower with a mixture of lady’s bedstraw, thistle, vetch, ox-eye daisies, red campion, ragged robin, bird’s foot trefoil and other wild flowers.

Yet when I walked past the office I saw and spoke to the reserve manager, who informed me there have been staffing cuts. Everything is up in the air at the moment. If I was still to take the internship there would be less work and my opportunities would be limited to ‘income projects’ with less conservation.

The prospect of finding paid work with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust or any other conservation organisation is looking bleak. As is finding employment in any sector aside from key work. The future, due to coronavirus and the environmental crisis is a great unknown, with little chance of ‘normal’, much less ‘better’.

Still, I’m going to continue with my internship and other conservation volunteering whether it leads to paid work or not as I value the work of the Wildlife Trust and it is a way of serving my land and gods.

And I’m going to pull my bubble back around myself for a while and continue to use this opportunity to ‘tend to my domain – myth, gods, and the soul’, as my deity advised this morning.