Health is everything

Good health is everything. So some people believe.

 

As humans  we structure our needs in that well-known colloquialism of ‘[insert life changing challenge e.g. having no job or experiencing a divorce] …but hey at least I have my health’.

 

I would argue that having no job or experiencing the break up of a lifelong relationship are often far more significant events than experiencing poor health, but as a society good health is so fundamentally cherished and important that the loss of it trumps most other misfortunes.

 

My issue with that idea is not just because it is totally subjective (someone’s poor health could be frequent headaches vs another’s experience of a life-threatening disease). But I also believe that some degree of poor health can be an enormously influential motivation to improve health. A motivation, that many people without an illness and those who take their good health for granted, do not have.

 

So I do believe that health is everything, but perhaps not in the same way that traditional phrase can imply, and I certainly don’t believe the opposite logic that poor health is worse than everything else life throws at you.

 

I’m aware that some aspects of this belief are controversial. Especially when poor health in its various forms kills people. It will probably kill me one day. But as a person with a chronic illness, I passionately believe I have gained things through having CF that I would unlikely have otherwise had.

 

Hopes, dreams, and a perspective that I fear would have passed me by if CF didn’t force me to slow down at times. A wish to be more grateful for the good happenings in life and a slow-burning determination to achieve what I care about, that personally, I think my CF is partially responsible for.

 

Some of the most inspiring, compassionate and intelligent people I have ever met live with poor health. I do not believe it is a coincidence.

 

Health is not a dichotomy.  Not everything that results from poor health is bad, and not all that comes from good health is instantly positive.

No matter how difficult or uncertain life can sometimes be with a lifelong illness, had I lived a life with perfect health I would simply not be me.

An appeal at the eleventh hour

It’s that time of year again.

Oh, you thought I meant the election?

Well, yes. But it’s also around about the time of year I end up in hospital for a 14 day course of intravenous antibiotics to treat the underlying and continuous infection in my lungs.

By Cystic Fibrosis standards this is nothing; it’s a walk in the park. I’m reminded of this every time I meet my fellow patients in hospital.

I was also in hospital during the Brexit vote last year (and yes, I escaped to go back home and vote). It occurred to me that I’ve probably been in hospital for two of the most significant political decisions in a generation.

Despite voting remain, I understand valid political arguments for leaving the EU. But when I woke up in my squeaky hospital bed on June 24th 2016, I felt nothing but shame and sadness.  Every single nurse who came to see me that day was an EU citizen: Spanish, Polish, Portuguese and one Italian. The NHS – the 5th biggest employer in the world – could not survive without them, and they were made to feel unwelcome in this country.

This year, there is a much more complex decision to be made, in the sense that there is no simple YES or NO to tick on a ballot box.

But one issue for me is startlingly straightforward; how much we need our national health service.

Dr Archie Norman was one of the founding members of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust, who passed away earlier this year aged 104. This is what he had to say when discussing the  great milestones of CF treatment in his lifetime. “Last, but not least, was the advent of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948 – we could prescribe drugs without worrying whether the family could afford them, a matter of immense importance in a persistent long-term disease such as cystic fibrosis.”

There may be many countries in the world that sadly can’t afford a health service such as ours, but we – as the 5th or 9th biggest economy in the world, depending on where you get your statistics- are not one of those countries. And there’s no doubt that the future of the NHS depends on our vote tomorrow.

I wouldn’t be here without it, I am sure. There are 15 million people in the UK classed as having a chronic illness, and for so many of them it is more than a figurative lifeline. We owe so much to the system and the people within it that, despite its flaws, help us live healthier, happier, longer lives.

I won’t argue that any one party has got all the answers at this election. The issues are complex and the solutions expensive, but there is no denying that a continued Tory government will be the end of the NHS.

Please, don’t vote for that. Many of us have a lot to lose.

When the brainfog hits you bad; a specialist’s perspective

I would expect, that even if you aren’t a part of the niche, tight-knit community of CF-related diabetics like me*, you will have experienced brain fog at some point in your professional career.  Or cognitive dysfunction, to give it its scientific name.

Maybe it was a critical moment, in a big meeting as you pitched the incredible, life-changing, oh-no-you-just-forgot-what-it-is, to a potential client or investor. Perhaps it was in the middle of an interview for a coveted job.

Or a more mundane, everyday kind of situation. When you forgot something mid-sentence on a phonecall, or forgot your password, fingers hovering over the keys as you tried to remember which dead pet name now makes up part of your obscure login.

We’ve all had it, often at the worst moments and it can be phenomenally irritating. It is also perhaps, a leveller, that makes even the most high-powered businessperson simply human for a moment.

According to Google, people search for all kinds of queries related to brain fog. We want to know what causes it, what it feels like, what foods make it worse (gluten, apparently), what kind of doctor can ‘treat’ it (now that is one kind of doctor I’d love to see), how long it lasts and more.

But is there anything good about brain fog? Perhaps so.

I am particularly intrigued by the phenomenon and that is because I experience a certain, specialist type of brain fog.  You might know it as diabetic hypoglycemia, or to give it its common name ‘a hypo’.

A hypo is a little different for everyone with diabetes, but let me tell you how it feels for me: the area around my mouth starts to feel a little numb, my lips tingle. I become very aware that I am trying to remember what it normally feels like in my head. I know something has changed. It goes quiet outside as I concentrate on working out what is happening. I always come to the same conclusion; as if by magic, some little stealth pixie must have stepped into my head and replaced my brain with styrofoam. I start to sweat a little, and then the penny drops. A hypo has hit.

At different times depending on how severe the hypo was, I’ve forgotten what I was saying, or doing, and on one or two occasions I’ve forgotten how to spell my name.

I don’t want to trivialise hypoglycemia as it can lead to life-threatening situations when not controlled. But having developed diabetes aged 21 I can remember life before hypos very clearly. And in pursuit of a silver lining in everything; I can say that the aftermath of a hypo can make me feel more alive.

That sudden absence of everything in my head and the instant switch into survival mode a hypo brings is extraordinary. Life becomes very simple and two dimensional. It gives me such an extreme respect for my brain and my body.

When the hypo is over I feel so grateful to have made it through. That absence of feeling is a reminder of how much is there when my body returns to normal.

In much the same way that brain fog is often just a side-effect of the human body going about its complex, messy, incredible business.

So cheers to that.

 

*A not well known, but common complication of Cystic Fibrosis in adults is CF-related diabetes. This is a bit of hybrid beast that is neither type 1 or 2, but bears more resemblance to type 1 and is usually treated with insulin. 

Who made my clothes?

I recently blogged about my big-deal-but-not-really-a-big-deal decision not to buy any clothes for a year.

If I were the kind of person who didn’t like clothes or was not easily swept up in the whispers of commoditized fast fashion that would not be worth telling you about. But I am, or was, that kind of person.

As I have previously said, I think expressing yourself through the clothes you wear is a wonderful thing. It just becomes a tad more complex of an issue when you discover that it takes 2,700 litres of water to produce one cotton t-shirt.

For the English among us, that’s 4,751 pint glasses of water.

If like in the 1800s we all wore one shirt per year*, perhaps that would be a sensible ratio of resources to output and no one would be getting so hot under the collar (I’m here all week) about the impact the fashion industry is having on climate change.

And that is the essence of fast fashion; more. More of the same, but in 5 different colours. More tops like last year but this time with more ruffles around the collar. More heels because the last pair broke and you might as well buy two pairs since you’re here anyway.

And so the cycle continues; more becomes more water, more cotton, more oil and more trees.

Which is why in my quest to buy better quality and far fewer clothes in the future, I’ve been exploring some of the amazing initiatives that are taking place to make fashion a much cooler, more sustainable industry.

My old uni, The University of Exeter and Fashion Revolution, an organisation set up to do exactly what it sounds like, have created a (free) short course designed to take the user on a journey of discovery about where their clothes really come from. It doesn’t start until 26th June and takes only 4 hours a week.

I’m really interested to find out more about the people, methods both good and bad, and the material that creates some of the clothes in my wardrobe. It means that when I shop in the future I will start to understand the places to go, the materials to look for and the true cost of what I’m wearing. You can sign up here if the idea excites you, too.

And to end with a piece of highly relevant trivia, did you know that H&M has created a ballgown entirely out of waste marine plastic for their 2017 Conscious collection? Well you do now, and apparently the material  is ‘unlike other plastic-based fabrics, it’s supersoft and can adapt to almost anything you want to make, from jeans to cocktail dresses.’

Which gives me hope, because if being good can also mean looking good, H&M may just be on the cusp of unlocking a new, and rather large customerbase.

 

*Completely uncited but in some cases probably quite accurate statement, merely used to make a point about modern shopping habits.

Slowing down fashion: a year-long experiment

I like clothes. Rather a lot. They’re beautiful, versatile, and help you be anyone you want to be. Or at least, that’s what they whisper at you from the mirror of the dressing room as you try them on.

Which is why the conclusion I came to last month, to try not to buy any new clothes for a year, felt like a dramatic one. And certainly left me wondering how many new hobbies I’d need to pick up the slack on all the time I used to spend shopping.

When I told my boyfriend however, he seemed nonplussed. This is the same guy who subsisted in the same pair of black skinny jeans for 3 years before I met him, so I may have been pitching to the wrong audience. While I am well aware that excessive shopping is not a vice that plagues everyone (and I salute you for it), it is a preoccupation of more than a few friends and family; and indeed a large chunk of the Western world.

So why the big gesture? Well, there’s no singular reason and it was not a sudden revelation. There has been a sickly feeling in my stomach whenever I’ve bought clothes for a while now. I know there will be some caveats and rules I’ll need to establish; what about special occasions like my brother’s wedding, or when all my socks inevitably have holes in?

So while I am still working out the details, the need for change is obvious. According to the Economist, global clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014. That can’t have been me doing all the buying. Every year more clothes are being made, and more are being thrown away sooner. Again from the Economist; Zara used to make do with a handful of yearly collections, now they have twenty.

When you compound that with another stat, from McKinsey – that simply producing 1kg of fabric generates on average 23kg of greenhouse gases – the sickly feeling gets a little stronger.

Must looking good really necessitate killing the planet?

I don’t think there’s a single answer to that question, and I don’t want to speak for others. Personally I get frustrated with clothes that are better suited to the dust bin after only a year of wear, and I get angry with myself for so easily falling prey to  promotion after promotion in the sales. But I don’t think liking clothes is wrong.

What about the confidence-boosting, the creativity, the buying power of fashion, which all bring immeasurable positives. Charities like SmartWorks show the difference a good outfit and the right training can do for women out of work. But there has to be a better way to do this. The opportunity is ripe for more brands to tackle clothing production and consumption in a profitable and sustainable way. Following in the footsteps of brands like Patagonia, and encouraging more people to make do with fewer, higher-quality items of clothing is surely the way forward.

This is after all a personal experiment and I’m doing it to learn. I want to understand what really goes into the process of making clothes; the environmental and the human cost. Yesterday was the anniversary of the 2013 Rana Plaza disaster, one of the most shameful days in the history of the fashion industry.  I’d like to better understand the psychology of it too; the reasons why new clothes have been so important to my self-esteem and why my choice of outfit is as important to some as the words I say in a meeting.

12 months from now I think I’ll still like clothes, but maybe I’ll respect them too.

Sorry but I don’t like your air

I got offered a freelance role recently. Successful agency, a big new business win to work on and, it goes without saying, some financial security.

I turned it down.

I could almost hear the recruiter thinking when I told her my decision, “is she crazy or just plain stupid?” Of course, she was nothing but pure professionalism in her response and I thank her for that.

But it wasn’t a straightforward decision. I’d already decided that I should probably take some time out between jobs to give the old breathers a chance to recover and repair. Besides, I had about a month long backlog of hospital appointments to catch up on (sadly the over-burdened NHS hasn’t quite got around to developing holographic technology to enable virtual appointments yet, but here’s hoping.)

In addition, I had made the hard decision to leave my previous agency to pursue a different kind of planning and transition into the sustainability and charity sector, so to not give that a shot first seemed wrong.

But the most pressing reason – that even common sense and a decent pay cheque couldn’t argue with – was where the agency was. Specifically the air around it. It was in an area of of London known for very poor air quality.

I’ve got my own little mind map of London that doesn’t mark the tourist spots or the best lattes in town (I’d pay good money for that map though) but it does tell me where all the areas of persistently bad air quality are, and I do my best to avoid them for long periods of time.

It sounds a little dramatic I know, the effects of breathing poor air are negligible if your exposure is minimal- for everyone that is, CF or not- but the long term effects are quite another thing.

There are lots of things you can’t put a price on and – it’s taken me a long while to accept it – keeping my lung function as good as it possibly could be, definitely falls somewhere in the ballpark of priceless.

Now if someone could only develop a high fashion face mask that doesn’t make you look like a ninja with a side hustle, that’d be peachy.

 

With every percentage

That scrappy bit of paper above is a list of life ambitions I wrote, aged 18. You can see I didn’t exactly hold back.

That scrappy bit of paper is a list of life ambitions  I wrote, aged 18.  I didn’t exactly hold back. In full it reads:

write at least one novel
have a photographic exhibition
speak 5 languages
save someone’s life
work for UN/NATO
sing in a band
visit over 50 countries
publish a historical/political work

learn a form of martial art.

To complete this grandiose document I then apparently scribbled some train times upside down at the bottom. In a similar vein, I didn’t find this note carefully stored for future reflection but by chance, stuffed in an old folder, when I recently moved house.

A few ambitions have changed in the 10 years since then; I never did apply for that NATO job nor have I seriously picked up a camera since I was 19. Ambitions change as we grow older, sometimes for better sometimes not (although me not singing in a band is almost certainly doing the world a favour). But what really hits me looking back on that list now, is the fact I had no limitations. My 18 year old self saw no reason for me to dream smaller or be cautious.

And why should I have been? At 18 I hadn’t had a single IV admission, I didn’t take any regular nebulisers, I hadn’t developed CF related diabetes, I only took about 10 pills a day. I’d just been prescribed my first inhaler. I was not by any stretch, what you would expect from a young adult with CF. I am proud to have dreamed so big.

The thing is, those big dreams may have evolved but they haven’t gone anywhere. I am loath to accept limitations, and the list I’d write aged 28 is just as ambitious as the old one, Cystic Fibrosis or not. But a little life experience has taught me that achieving every dream takes time and compromise.

A thought popped into my head the other day, and I found myself speculating how much lung function I had permanently lost in the last 3 years due to normal stresses like long hours at work and city air. I settled on 6 percent. Lung function fluctuates naturally, mine has gone up and down by 20% in the last year depending on how well and generally fit I am. But there is something called a baseline measurement in lung function, and CF doctors will use it to assess what your best figure is.

After my morbid moment, I mentally slapped myself and went back to mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed. But navel-gazing Elly had a point, there’s an opportunity cost in everything we do.  We all need a method of measuring how we spend our time – even if spent percentages of lung function is a little niche – how else will we work towards our goals?

I thought about all the hours that made up those three years, some spent in pursuit of goals big and small, others spent happily pursuing no goal at all. I wouldn’t go back and change them; they’ve led to personal and professional achievements I’m proud of. But I do wish I’d spent more of that 6% in pursuit of the things I really measure myself by. The motivations, beliefs and dreams that inspired that little list in an A5 notebook aged 18.

Which is why, 2 weeks ago, I quit my job. I’m spending the next few weeks working on a writing project I’ve been awarded a grant for.  Beyond that I’m looking for a role in a creative agency where I can work on the kind of social change, charity and sustainability projects that get me really excited.

I’d like to make every percentage count.