‘Peace of Mind’ – A Self-Care Staycation

Peaklets Shepherd’s Hut, West Firle, UK.

Fitting to its name, January was, quite literally, blue.  In many ways, my mental health had hit its lowest point yet, without me even realising it.  I guess the tolls and burdens of the last two years had finally crept up on me, and whilst I was at least out of those hospital walls for the first time in nearly two years, I was also completely on my own, with nobody to help me justify my new surroundings, the anxious feelings, or resolve them, for that matter.  It may be of great surprise then, that I have been unable to secure any emotional or psychological support post-admission; bedridden and shut away in a small hospital side-room for seventeen months in total, the traumas of seeing and experiencing COVID at its worst, the never-ending frustrations and guilt-trips of medical gaslighting, and the flashbacks to the times, the moments, when things really were at the cliff-edge, a path-tread between life and death.  And nope – I was still told I was not eligible for psychological input or counselling.  So, I returned home, traumatised, beyond just a *little* bit broken, and left to navigate all these strange feelings by myself; uncertainty, rejection, isolation, and neglect.

In short, after many weeks of waking up to the feeling of having no purpose or belonging in this world, I decided that the only way forward was to put together my own therapy somehow, and mental healing – all in the form of some good old self-care, self-love, and remodelling my whole mind with a new revamp and, well, mindset.  

Very much in the knowing that so many others out there; friends, acquaintances, and countless strangers, are stumbling through the similar silent turmoil of their own emotional troubles, no thanks of course to this tiresome pandemic, I wanted to come back on here and write another blog-post on how I have personally got through the thick end of the mud, in some small glimmering hope that it might help others to soon see through their troubles too.  

To put things into context, after my latest long admission to hospital, I had been dropped above a signpost whose hands of direction had all been broken off.  After six peri-arrests, my seventh bout of sepsis that year, two failed surgeries, many miscommunications, delays, and mistakes, I fled home for the sake of my mental health, as the seventeenth month of admission got too much.  Any chances of me having correction surgery in a feasible timeframe was now completely out the window, because I needed a bed on the Intensive Care Unit, which, again, no thanks to COVID, was now simply not going to happen.  Yet now, after all this time, testing, and suffering, I’ve been left, out in the community, with a completely non-functioning medical device (tube and drainage bag) that was, and still is, causing me unimaginable pain and sickness, bleeding and infection, with nobody in charge to oversee any forthcoming care, all with my health now treading a precariously thin line again.  This, in turn, would ultimately affect everything else I had planned to put in tow for the New Year – medical school, my career, my social life, my happiness, and ultimately, my feeling, or lack of, self-worth. 

I hence became very angry at the world, and this mostly came in the form of resentment.  Yet, I kept these bitter feelings very much within myself, like a soda bottle about to explode but with its lid still tightly screwed on, and so carried on smiling for the outsiders, for social media, for friends who hadn’t seen me in so long, for family who had spent all the living daylight journeying through this same nightmare as me.  When, on the few occasions, I did try to vent to the unbiased world, in the hope that I would find common-ground, or at least understanding, with someone or something else, I was only scolded by my own embers.  This all made me feel even more alone.  So, in deep fear that bringing up these problems, which indeed required medical attention, would result in me being back in for more endless months with little outcome, or worse – delay or even end my career dreams of completing medical education and becoming a Doctor, or result in more gaslighting and hence feeling even worse about myself and my situation, I instead avoided everything and everyone, altogether.  I was genuinely at that point in the journey where I preferred to stay at home, curled up on the floor in pain and tears, and to, with all might and tongue in the cheek, carry on silently, than to seek help.  This was suffering in silence at its very highest, and it was far, far worse than any of the dark, suicidal nights I had spent alone in hospital side-rooms, postponed surgeries, missed Christmas’ and birthdays. 

Of course, the more I thought and fretted about all of this, the more my troubles went round and round in my mind, like a dozen broken record players screeching on repeat, neither pedal or off-button in sight.  I went to bed, crying that I could not afford private healthcare, even if this really was my very last resort, and I woke up feeling numb to any thought of motivation, purpose, or excitement for the future.  Yet, I still could not go to anyone for help.  

Many of those mornings were spent staring at the window.  I wasn’t staring out of the window because the blinds were drawn down, opaque and blank.  But it was a beautiful day outside, and you could make out the sun trying to rip through the blackness of my room, a single streak of white gold probing through the window’s gap, like a bar off of a windchime.  It had indeed escaped the blackout blinds – its sheet a blank canvas, as blank as my mind, as I stared at it, waiting for words, answers, that I knew would never come.  I didn’t want to look outside anymore.  To me, there was no outside, there was no viewpoint or perspective to be had, and that’s when it clicked – I needed to get up and do something about this, starting with opening up the blinds and letting the rare winter sunshine in.  

Don’t ever be ashamed to spend this time pondering in your little hole.  In many ways, this deep, dark hole that you may find yourself stuck within, is actually one that you have dug yourself, for safety, and sanctuary – for that necessary time and peace to work things out yourself, without the inconveniences of a bustling, judgmental world hanging overhead.  Though not pleasant, I am grateful for those few weeks of nothingness.  It enabled me to get those bottled emotions out in whatever form they needed to come out in, gifting me the clarity to then plan forwards, in the small, doable kind of steps that I could walk.  

After some lengthy thought, I pictured the four main ingredients to bettering my wellbeing as though it was a compass-face: North, East, South, West.  Only, these points of great importance instead stood for: Nature, Energy, Self-Love, and Words.  I hope that these four ingredients can too, help you, or someone else you know, in navigating the hard times.  On the face of it, it covers just a few suggestions of how we can help make ourselves feel better.  Let’s walk the circle.  

Self-Care Staycation, January 2022

Nature:

It has been five years since I last had a holiday.  It feels like a lifetime ago.  But I am incredibly lucky to live in close proximity to beautiful countryside and nature back at home.  Even during my long hospital stay, I was grateful for the hospital’s garden and pond, where I could sit outside in my wheelchair and listen to the whistling birds, rushing leaves, and running water.  But I haven’t been completely alone, or unaccompanied, for the entire time since my health declined; that is, two years – first the pandemic’s initial lockdown, then an eviction from my home making me homeless, followed by a few admissions to the Intensive Care Unit, and then seventeen months bedridden as an inpatient, across three hospitals.  I wanted to get away.  By this, I wanted to get away from other people, to somewhere where it was just me, and the natural world.  Being out in nature has been scientifically proven to improve our mental health, and I began noticing this from the very first day I started my daily walks in the countryside, which I have been doing as part of an 870-mile walking fundraiser, raising money to get as many pianos into NHS hospitals, to help give the gift of music to patients and staff (NHS fundraiser link).  I wanted to experience new surroundings like these, but also roam completely new pastures, somewhere where I could soak up the raw beauty of nature, whilst still being gentle and realistic with myself.

Peaklets Shepherd’s Hut

I found this spot of beautiful countryside via the most adorable and quaint shepherd’s hut, situated within a green sanctuary of rolling fields in West Firle, Sussex.  Emily, the Airbnb host of Peaklet’s Shepherd’s Hut, was wonderfully kind and attentive in helping me book a weekend’s stay here, plus, with the addition of a divine little log-burner, and the cutest breakfast basket delivered, it was all I could ever dream of – I practically teared up with a relief and happiness at this.

Countryside views from the comfort of this cosy bed

With two windows overlooking the frost-laden fields beyond, and a large set of double French doors overlooking even more green, backing onto Emily’s stunning country cottage, my cosy accommodation for the weekend was filled with natural light and stunning rural views.  I ensured to open the blinds early in the morning so that I could watch the pink sun rise through the speckled ice that fringed the window ledges.  And by night, the sky swarmed in deep violets and ravenous reds – these spectacular sunsets had me fuzzy with excitement for new-coming prospects and brighter, sunnier days ahead.  What were the chances? – I was very lucky with the English winter weather too.

Cuckmere Haven Beach

And, if fields and trees weren’t enough, Peaklets Shepherd’s Hut is situated just a short drive away from some amazing beaches, with the bigger, exciting cities such as Brighton only twenty minutes to the west.  With an adorable 10-month old Cavapoo puppy, I met up with my family following my short stay at Peaklets, where we then headed to Cuckmere Haven for a day spent dog-walking down on the rocks and pebbles, views of the dramatic white cliffs, rugged coastline, and meandering river all right in front of us.  The fresh sea air and winter sunshine was everything I had wanted and needed, and Winnie, our puppy, enjoyed every moment – so much so, that I feel inclined to add the ‘P’, for puppy, somewhere to my wellbeing compass analogy – because, who doesn’t love a bit of pet therapy?

Energy

The concept of energy, when it comes to wellbeing, is referred to in many different ways and forms.  From a physical point of view, I knew I needed rest.  As someone with multiple chronic illnesses, I, like many other ‘spoonies’ will admit, tend to fail at ‘pacing’ and instead resorts to adopting the ‘boom and bust’ method – meaning, I spend periods of time doing so much in such a short space, that I only end up crashing, and paying the price of an exhausted body for many weeks on.  Don’t ever feel ashamed of taking that necessary rest though.  It is not laziness.  It is not a lack of motivation.  Sometimes, the best thing we can do for ourselves, is to simply lie there, and do nothing.  And I sought great satisfaction in doing just that on my self-care staycation weekend. 

AllTrails also covers walking routes that are more accessible

Something else I ensured to get a lot of, in order to recharge my physical self, was to incorporate the habit of a healthier sleeping pattern into my schedule.  It is again, no surprise, that the combination of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, has had me struggling to sleep at night.  A jumbled body clock and erratic day-to-night routine has had me feeling grouchy, sluggish, and incomplete.  Simple solutions to this included switching off all electronic devices at least three hours before bed, wearing my new blue-light glasses when using my computer screen during the day, and using my ‘stress check roll-on’ and ‘pillow spray’ from ‘this works’ sleep range.  And, on mornings where I have still woken up unrefreshed, I have instead done the opposite to catching up, slowing down, or napping – by forcing myself outdoors for a crisp walk.  Going back to the whole idea of ‘utilising nature’, that sluggish, tired feeling may in fact be our body’s way of telling us we actually need to get moving and outdoors – and the outdoors is something that’s always free, and always plentiful from our very doorsteps, no matter where we look, or go. I highly recommend also checking out the ‘All Trails’ phone app, which contains hundreds of walking routes and maps for anyone keen to get their walking boots back on!

But there’s more to just nature and physical recuperation when it comes to energy.  We might not realise it, but the sheer amount of mental energy we use up through our interactions with other people undoubtedly has a big impact on our mental health.  This became a significant factor during my long hospital admissions, where medical gaslighting, and the isolation from those I loved, really affected my ability to address my real emotions and vulnerabilities.  Being bounced from specialty to specialty, hospital to hospital, I often felt, and still do feel, discarded by much of the medical profession, despite being in the profession, as a medical student, myself.  It has, at times, had me seriously rethinking my choice of career and whether I could become a Doctor in the toxic kind of environment I became a patient in.  Of course, there have also been the days where I’ve wanted to continue my path in Medicine more than ever, but this background of deep-set resentment, and put quite bluntly, trauma, has reminded me that, if I want to move properly forwards, I need to let this bitterness go, because, quite frankly, those who have let me down, let go of all this the very second they left my hospital bedside.  

In the end, I resorted to having an unintentional social media detox, which, to no surprise, did do me good.  Naturally, we all compare ourselves to others, because we are always seeking a better version of ourselves, a more attractive, eventful, and happy version that forever seems so much more attractive, eventful, and happier in others.  But, by doing this, we forget who we are and what we are aiming for in our own unique lives, resulting in us scrutinising our own reasons and wants for everyday pleasure.  

Closer to home, my friendship dynamics have also really remoulded over the course of the pandemic, no thanks to my long stays away in hospital, distanced from all contact and interaction with others.  Of course, I have come to learn who my real friends are, as you often do through times of real hardship, with those who have kept in contact regardless, and made that extra effort to jointly check in, becoming my closest, and most dearest, companions.  Being surrounded only by good people, who give off the good kind of energy, is crucial to our own happiness and feeling of worth – you don’t deserve anything less than this.  On that note, the concept of using a bigger mind over the smaller mind to observe these ways of thinking and justifying, in both our relationships with others and with the world, is explained well in the meditation podcasts available on the ‘Headspace’ app – another really useful tool I have been religiously using lately to help improve my mental health and mindfulness strategies.  

TOR Spa Retreat, Canterbury
In the sauna

Last but not least for the ‘energy’ component, I recently discovered Ayuverdic medicine, which has really helped to restore the balance between my mind and body, physical energy and mental energy – but it only ‘works’ if you truly put your mind to it, and in practice.  As part of a birthday treat, which very conveniently coincided with my staycation weekend and celebrations, I visited TOR spa retreat in Canterbury, for a day of relaxation, a full-body massage, a 2-course vegan lunch with unlimited herbal teas, and full use of its poolside facilities, including a warm pool, sauna, steam-room, and relaxation lounges overlooking yet more scenic countryside and green grounds.  It sounds silly, but I haven’t treated myself in so many years – the tolls of medical school life, then the pandemic, and a very rocky road with ill health, all completely taking over my life, so it felt good to be pampered, and to let the outside world disappear far and away from the inner walls of the retreat for a while.  For some very sacred hours, time stopped still and I was able to smile and simply enjoy myself – a strange, and long-lost concept for me, after all this time.  And having sweat the small stuff for so long? – I replaced this all with spending the day on a soft, pillowy couch, gratitude journaling, reading self-help books, such as my favourite: ‘A Few Wise Words:  Stories of success and inspirational advice from 22 extraordinary individuals’, educating myself on mindfulness and meditation, all followed by digging out my old acupuncture mat and yoga poses manual – I finally feel happy with the morning wellness routine I have set myself again.  

Self-care

TOR Spa Retreat has plenty of spaces to relax and recharge

You could call this all the ultimate package of self-care.  And it really was.  To add, do check out my Instagram video on what self-care products I brought along to my staycation, if you too are looking for the perfect additions to a self-care break away.  For me, I found I got the most out of the simplest things; a few good skincare products (I use the ‘The Ordinary’ and ‘Glow Recipe’ ranges, which I find are kinder to my stress-busted skin, and as someone who has pretty debilitating and painful flare-ups with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS)).  I also brought along some of my favourite, comfiest loungewear, including Sherpa fleece joggers, and my new, life-changing peach tie-dye Oodie (I highly recommend owning one of these!), and of course, some feel-good, nutritious, easy-to-cook food supplies, glamping style (which, despite a limited diet due to gastrointestinal disease, was a great form of therapy creating and cooking up new soul-warming porridge and ramen recipes for friends and family back at home! – check out the video for the results!).  

Thank you so much to ‘The Pig, at Bridge Place’ for a wonderful birthday evening!

On the topic of nutritious, healthy, feel-good food, I rounded off my few days of self-loving heaven with a trip to a Michelin star restaurant for my birthday evening.  ‘The Pig, at Bridge Place’, is a chain of super-sustainable and eco-friendly restaurants, which swear by their 25-mile concept, where all their ingredients are grown and produced locally, within a 25-mile radius.  In addition to this, they have their own walled vegetable garden, in which all the menu’s plant-based foods are grown in.  I was lucky to be sat at a table right before their giant shelves of glass jars, all crammed with juicy, colourful, home-grown vegetables from the garden, pickled in every kind of form!  As someone who, despite having a limited diet, is trying to do their bit in helping the planet, I found The Pig’s sustainable and eco-friendly approach wonderful, refreshing, and ever so creative, and they had a great deal of vegan options too, plus their gorgeous cocktails (the main ‘dishes’ of my evening), made up of the many berries and plants from their garden.  To finish, in all manner of lovin’ and good vibes, everything was of course, rounded off with some rainbow birthday cake and sprinkles, because who doesn’t love it when there’s a bright, colourful rainbow at the end of a dark, rainy storm (aka, my entire month!)? 

The kitchen area in Peaklets, and its cosy little log-burner

Knowing that you are doing good for the planet, and for others, makes you feel good too.  But what also makes me feel better, particularly right now, is having that ability to restore some of the control and independence I once had in my life pre-illness – something of which I’ve had very little of whilst I have juggled so much ill-health and setbacks.  As someone with a tube, drainage bag, on injections and blood-thinners, and home oxygen, due to my high risk of having a respiratory attack/arrest, my safety whilst away on staycation was just as important and paramount as my happiness.  As much as I hate to have to consider this when it comes to planning exciting things, It also gives me great power in that I can accept when and where I need help and that this is okay.  Those of you who are also in the chronic illness and rare disease community will know too well this feeling of being a burden or liability at times, but with some compromise and negotiation, both ends can be met, and hence, you can still be granted with the space, dignity, and luxury of privacy and peace you deserve.  In my case, I ensured I was equipped with all the extra medical supplies, in case I needed anything in addition, during my stay.  This included an extra portable oxygen concentrator (making sure that, as someone who is blind and on oxygen, I steered a safe distance away from blowing myself up when lighting the log burner!), nasal cannulas, syringes, injections, a sharps bin (for said disposed needles), dressings, gauze (lots of it!), tape, and so on.  In looking for a nice place to get away to, I also ensured to pick a place that didn’t just catch my eye, but also one that wasn’t too far away in distance from those who’d need to assist me in the circumstances of a medical emergency.  With my family just an hour away, and all mobile phone contacts on hand, I was both near enough and far away as could be, to enjoy the happy balance.  And it also gave everyone else that ‘peace of mind’, which was just as equally important.  

Words

My final piece of advice for getting it all out and doing the most good for your mental wellbeing and recharge, is to make the most of words.  Lots of them.  Because when we are unable to speak or express ourselves, the refuge of words can heal.  Another main reason for me wanting to get away was so that I could get back into the flow of finishing writing my book, a memoir about being the UK’s first deafblind person training to be a Doctor, and how being a patient has influenced my practice, which I hope I can share with you all soon.  Unsurprisingly, the weight of doubt, stress, uncertainty, and grief, had all very much staggered my book’s progress, and the lack of motivation and zest had killed off my writing flair quite a bit.  With all the events and happenings of the past two years, much of which has consisted of trauma and PTSD, all these empty words had been forever flying around in my mind, day and night, yet in a form of language I was unable to get down onto paper.  I am sure fellow writers will be able to relate to this.  They say that writing down your thoughts at the end of the day, whether that be in the form of gratitude journaling, as mentioned earlier, or as a daily reflection, to-do lists, or ‘letters to self’, is beneficial in clearing your mind before the start of each new day, but I was surprised to find that I in fact struggled to write out these particular chapters that narrated my recent traumas, because it was all too raw to compile.  The upset that it ultimately brought back to the surface was something I had not anticipated.  But I also realised that this was okay, because whilst in the shepherd’s hut, and with my lack of company, it meant I had a safe place in which I could deal with the emotions, flashbacks, and ways in which I wanted to portray my experiences, at my own freewill, breath, and time.  With that, the weekend became one of good therapy, to put both closure and stage-light onto the starkness of everything I had truly been through up until now.  And I am grateful for that

The views from the Shepherd’s Hut whilst writing my book were incredible

Since returning from my self-care staycation, I have continued to write each evening, no matter how long or short.  I have also tried to keep up with new habits, such as yoga, a healthy sleep routine, reducing my time on social media, and committing to the new ‘Headapace’ app which I now use for moments of meditation and mindfulness throughout the day.  My staycation was a wonderful, and much-needed, experience, but it has also taught me, upon reflection, that no matter how difficult and tangled up things in life may get, there are always the most simplistic and free things out there to relieve us from our woes – nature, fresh air, loved ones; family and friends, peace, and most importantly, time.  It has also taught me that there will always be a way out, no matter how far down you end in the deep, dark hole you’ve dug – whether that be through a handhold, a rope-ladder, or even a shard of sunlight piercing through the blankness of your window blinds.  Things aren’t perfect, but quite frankly, I don’t think life will ever be that perfect – but that’s what makes it exciting, and a life very much worth living, and until that’s all over, there will always be a way forward if we just use the help…of a compass – right?  

Sending rainbows, light, and love, 

Alexandra x

‘You HAVE got this!’

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