Health matters

Please be aware that the following contains graphic descriptions which may not be for the squeamish. Bowel disease is still very much a taboo subject, but the reality of living with it is what drives me to tell my story. Those who know me and my struggle will appreciate why I want to share my own particular journey. It's honest and might not be a palatable subject for most (and some might say not relative to a style blog) in which case I suggest you leave the page. If I can help only one person improve their lot in life, then it will be a great thing.

You don't get into your fifties without having a health issue or two and I'm no exception. Increasingly, it seems that so many health problems are rooted in what we consume. The old adage of "You are what you eat" is certainly true for me, although it's taken me nearly 40 years to address it.

In my late teens I was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a severe bowel disease that has been part of my life ever since. At times the disease has flared up until at it's most acute it has lead me to be hospitalised. Medical opinion states that it's a stress related immune disorder which manifests itself in an area of the colon becoming inflamed to the point that ulcers are produced which then burst and bleed. Painful cramps and frequent bloody, loose bowel movements can make leaving home virtually impossible and once on this downward spiral the usual outcome is medical intervention such as steroids under hospital care. Daily medication is the first line of treatment aiming to control the overactive immune response, but these can cause their own problems and reactions. Repeated flare ups can often result in surgery in an attempt to curtail the disease and if the surgery is extensive then the patient can wake up to find themselves with a stoma and a colostomy bag.

My story has taken a different turn from the norm, thank goodness. In my 30's I reacted badly to the standard drug treatment and this prompted me to start a search for my very own Holy Grail - a non medical treatment that could reduce my symptoms and perhaps in the long run cure me. This proved to be an expensive but on the whole interesting quest. I tried a host of Alternative Therapies from Chinese herbs and Homeopathy to self Hypnosis and many others on the way. This spanned a period of some 20 years and in the meantime I was lucky to have long spells when the symptoms went into remission.

Fast forward then to April 2013 when I had a particularly bad flare up, the worst I'd experienced without being admitted to hospital. Desperate not to end up on the conveyor belt of conventional medicine, I started trawling the Internet for new research into my condition. Sifting through endless claims for wonder supplements and miracle cures I eventually stumbled across a reference to a book which strangely enough I had bought many years earlier, but had dismissed after only reading the introduction as it seemed too drastic to implement or more importantly, maintain. I unearthed my copy and read it in one sitting.

As they say, drastic times call for drastic measures and at the time of writing it's May 2015 and I've been well for 2 years. The key to my wellbeing is, I believe, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet as devised by an American doctor Elaine Gottschall. My GP has been a great help and in the early days as I was dropping weight rapidly referred me to an NHS dietician to ensure I was getting all the essential nutrients. My weight has plateaued and I am at last fit and healthy.

The title of the book is "Breaking the vicious cycle. Intestinal health through diet" by Elaine Gottschall BA, MSC.

As with all matters of health it's essential to refer to your own doctor for advice before you embark on any diet or alternative health treatment.

It's only 6 days since the blog went live and I'm delighted to report that today I received an email from a couple moored up on a yacht in the Caribbean. The woman thanked me for the details of the book, as her husband has UC and will now get a copy so that he can start to learn how he can help himself. Already this page has justified it's inclusion. Hurrah!


I think that women are great. Does that mean that I'm a feminist? A doctor once remarked that he saw me as a strong woman, a true feminist. So, if it's as simple as that, I suppose I must be. It also means that most of my close girlfriends are too. Well done to us then.  Anyway, I want to talk about the three M's that shape women - menstruation, motherhood and menopause. 

Girls as young as nine nowadays have their tender lives challenged by the physical and emotional upheaval that menstruation brings. For two weeks out of every four, the hormonal surges of PMS followed by the backswing at the onset of the period can cause huge mental disruption at a time when these youngsters are struggling to discover who they are and how they fit in with those around them. They sit in class alongside their male counterparts to find themselves at the beginning of a lifetime of disadvantage. Where a young boy's only hormonal challenge is his sometimes uncontrollable desire, the young girl is tossed about in a repeated cycle of mixed emotions which must be masked from those around her, sometimes even from her best friend. The truth of the matter is that at times she will feel quite mad, scared at how mad she feels and this then is compounded by the paranoia that everyone is talking about her being mad. The return to feeling normal which floods back at the very moment she realises her period has begun is short-lived. The cycle continues, the roller-coater ride has no end. So there we have the formation of the character of the young woman. The essential need for secrecy so that she feels included rather than marginalised. The extra effort needed to keep her studies on track despite the monthly cramps and the seesaw of emotions. The sense of injustice that her male counterparts are having such an easy time of things. And the knowledge that this state of affairs will continue for what seems like a life sentence. With drive, motivation and a determination that the boys will never have to exercise, she forges towards her 20's.  

She survives heartbreaks that rock her mental stability even more - how can a boy understand the pain of breaking up when his girlfriend is in the midst of her darkest PMS? Oblivious, or worse, regardless of this he dumps her, suggests they have a break, needs to get out. But she survives, stronger, and by the time she's at Uni she has matured enough to be open with (girl)friends and share the monthly torments and tears. These are the bonding years when deep friendships are formed, secrets shared and dreams are fed and watered - marriage and babies beckon. Still the monthly hormonal surges continue, even once the babies arrive. Add to this, the trials of breast feeding (or God forbid, the guilt of not), sleepless nights, the return of the menstrual cycle and this is shaping up to be quite a mental battle. Survival is her default setting. She copes, she calls her mother and cries, she shouts as her husband, but inside she is growing into a mighty warrior. She would kill for her babies. She is a staunch friend to her girlfriends. She is motivated to win this battle as she has every other. The years pass, the kids fly the nest, and then the hormones change bringing the last onslaught, the menopause. This almighty battle is the final insult. After all the years of the overwhelming evidence of a woman's sexuality, the plug is pulled, but painfully slowly. The flushes, the night sweats, fuzzy brain and insomnia bring the woman to the edge of the abyss once again. But she is older, wiser, well-read, less vulnerable than when this crazy journey began. Five, ten or sometimes even 15 years later she emerges like a butterfly from a chrysalis, with renewed energy and a strength built from her experience. The journey has been tough, but she has been tougher. Throughout she has more than coped, she has loved, cajoled and supported her family and friends while fighting her background battle. She is marvellous, she is magnificent, she is woman. 


OK, the photos pretty much say it all. This is the current state of play regarding the onset of middle age and the big question of whether to cover up or not. Yes, I know it may not look like much at the moment, but it's the start of things to come, a sign that there's no going back. With a bit of clever posing my arms still look fairly acceptable for an old bird of 57. Don't think that this has happened by chance though. As a teenager I played volleyball, netball and basketball. From being spindly, string arms they took on some shape and definition until gradually I developed fine, not overdone, muscles. Swimming club kept these muscles lean and since my recent love affair with wild swimming I'm happy to say that I can still pull off a shapely pose from time to time. But don't be fooled. Age is catching up with me and my arms are showing the ravages of time as much as my face now. Caught unawares, there's a whole lot of dodgy stuff to be seen.

I'm making a point of sharing this as it's really winding me up to be honest. Not the whole ravages of time thing, but the dilemma of which way to go with it. Do I take cover and invest in sleeved versions of everything? Or do I ignore it? Well, that's not really an option, is it? Here they are flashing about in front of me, catching my attention at the most inopportune of moments. Take the other evening during our latest exhibition. There was I blithely accepting payment for a beautiful painting, feeling delighted for the artist, happy for the business and suddenly, as I was bending over the PDQ machine, out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of my terrible inner arm gloopiness, a kind of lacy, drapey skin. Worse still was the thought that the client may have been exposed to this unsavoury display too! Did I actually see the guy wince? Is this a major social gaffe, worse than having your skirt stuck up your knicker leg?

Mary Portas tried to wean us onto her solution to the problem. Armery, I think she called it: a pair of arm tights which was designed to be worn under the dress/top.  Available in lace, jersey or cotton and in umpteen colourways it was going to revolutionise the way we dress. In some ways I was kind of pleased that we were talking about yet another unmentionable women's problem, but in another it riled me a bit too. Why, oh why, are we so pressured into being perfect even as we come into our later years? As I look around at men of my own age are they being asked by society to cover up their imperfections so as not to offend me or other sensitive souls? Not that I've noticed. More to the point, are they worried about the ravages of time? It doesn't look like it to me. I'm not about to declare war and itemise every imperfection of the male anatomy just to make my point, and I'll tell you why. I don't really care. Blokes are blokes and they come in all shapes and sizes just like us women. But somehow their imperfections don't feature in newspapers and magazines with sickening regularity. Nor are there pages and pages of advertisements selling creams, potions or surgery to fix all of their problems. And no, these chaps are not to be found squinting at their rear view just before they go out to dinner. The very thought that the male of the species would have their evening spoilt by a glimpse of their balding pate in a mirror as they were departing the Gents is laughable, ridiculous. But I know it's such a common occurrence for a woman to have her evening spiral into a decline if she happens to discover that her outline is not as she imagined as she gazes into a different mirror - this isn't what her reflection at home told her. So sad and so annoying too.

Anyway, back to the matter in hand. In the grand scheme of things I know how terribly shallow, no, pathetic this all seems.  Looking around me at failing economies, school shootings, global warming, famine and war, does it really matter if my arms look like those of a 57 year old? I think not. These arms have cherished two babies as I breastfed them for years and years, way beyond what was necessary, and well into a place that satiated my overwhelming desire to nurture, my need to love and wonder at these small and amazing creatures that were my blessings. These arms have hugged and squeezed so many friends, too many to count, but left no doubt that my love was strong, my concern genuine. These arms have comforted family in times of need, been solace and safety when life was tough. These arms have welcomed newcomers into my life as I have opened my heart to them unreservedly.  These arms have waved their bingo wings like joyous flags to departing loved ones as they headed off to pastures new. These arms have carried bags and bags of shopping, lovely loot from all of my favourite charity and non-charity shops. These arms have been hugely industrious and strong, lugging paintings and sculptures from here to there and back again, thousands of times over. These arms have beaten pounds and pounds of the most delicious homemade fudge you'll ever find. These arms have carried forth many a plump, burnished turkey to complete another family Christmas dinner. And these arms are going to attempt to swim between every one of the six isles of Scilly on the 5th of September 2015.

So what I'm saying is that these arms, like your arms (all you lovely readers out there) are wonderful, functional, expressive and generous. They may jiggle and wobble and have a mind of their own, but they're pretty amazing none the less. And if you see me in a sleeveless outfit this summer, don't feel sorry for me that I maybe ought not to be showing my arms as the flesh it ripples, the skin it sags, and I'm looking a tad less than perfect. Please note that I won't be concerned about these arms. Please, don't you be either.


About 10 years ago, when I was a curvaceous size 12 on a good day or a lumpy size 14 on a bad one, I went on a business trip to Cornwall with an artist friend. It was a business trip on a budget and we were therefore sharing a room, but at least it was in the Penzance Arts Club where we were both members. It was a very bohemian set-up and always full of colourful characters so it was great fun to have an excuse to spend the weekend there.

One evening we were invited to attend the Private View of an exhibition in nearby St Just which created a flurry of activity in the bottom of our weekend bags. Did we have anything arty enough(her) and dressy enough(me)? The options were limited, and after retreating to bathrooms we regrouped to assess ourselves and each other. Kathy looked her usual understated, cool-artist self. I thought I looked passable, faintly chubby, but at least presentable enough not to have to hide in a dark corner all night. That was until I checked out my rear view in a couple of strategically placed mirrors. "What's going on with the back of my bra line, Kathy?" I asked. It looked decidedly dodgy. To which she replied in her native American drawl "Honeee, you' got baaayckfat!"

This alarming reality had previously gone unnoticed by me due to the lack of awareness of the condition and also the lack of perfect mirror alignment. Belly fat, chubby thighs, moon face (side effect of steroids), massive mammaries (due to over production of milk akin to a dairy parlour whilst breast feeding) - all of these I knew about, but no, not back fat. Apart from spoiling a good evening out (yes, I did actually find a dark corner to lurk in for the duration), it was also a terrible blow to our friendship. How could she have told me? How could she have not? Bugger.

And so began the inevitable search for wunderwear or what our mothers/grandmothers referred to as foundation garments. It soon became apparent to me that the production of this vital configuration of "lingerie" is a massive industry. Once you've discovered that your body has let you down (somewhat literally), the hunt for the easy solution never ends. Lose 10lbs and you still need it, only in a smaller size. Likewise with the post-Christmas gain which suddenly decides to show up, bang on New Year's Eve just as you're trying to squeeze yourself into that silky sheath dress you foolishly imagined you were going to slim into in time for the annual do. You now need all the same items to suck you in and pull you up, only in 2 sizes bigger than normal.

You may look at photos of me in my blog and wonder what I've got to complain about? But listen, dropping 3 dress sizes was wonderful (and still is), but it does has a downside. I may be smaller, but there is an element of deflation about my person (remember those sad, wrinkly balloons you find behind the sofa 2 weeks after the children's birthday party?) and these areas, I feel, still have to be coaxed and neatly tidied away to give a smooth outline.

I now possess every combo in every size of Spanx (other brands are also available) long shorts, short longs, all-in-ones with mini letterbox apertures which allegedly allow for bodily functions to continue (a bit of a challenge), skinny vest-type tops which do away with any cleavage/bust definition as well as the desire to fully breathe in, and an amazingly lurid pink number which starts just above my knees and meets the bottom of my bra line. All of these work to a certain degree, but the problem is, and excuse me for stating the obvious, well the problem is that all the excess fat, flesh or in my case skin just gets gathered up and eventually spills out in another location! It seems to me that total mummification is the only complete remedy. Either that, or we all agree not to tell our best friend that she's got back fat.

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