Category: Mental Health


Like a 1980s throw back, the pavements are scattered with joggers, clad in fresh neon Lycra. Gyms full of frantic activity. Personal Trainer’s, like tour reps, guiding uncomfortable newbies, as the gym stalwarts look on resentfully, impatient at having to queue for machines they’ve come to call their own.

people in gym

Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

Me: I resist the magnetic pull of these sports, though my head aches for the hot, dripping sweat of impossibly intense cardio regimes. With every advert for a new workout,  I remember the hours spent pounding the treadmill, ever harder, ever faster. The high of running on empty, breaking through pain. The cycling, competitive climbing, rowing, bench press, skipping, weights…

… and actually, I hated it. Although I’ve always been fit, at 5ft 2″, I’m not a natural sportswoman. Don’t get me wrong,  I used to enjoy a cycle, climbing, a good walk, but in those days, it was a pastime, not a regime.

Why then?  Why did I endlessly punish my body with ever-increasing levels of cruelty? Why ignore the aching, the fatigue, the pain?

Ask the Anorexia.

Without wishing to sound too extreme, I want to warn anyone who has been lured into fitness regimes and fad diets this January.  Being healthy is all well and good, but making it a mission can make YOU a slave.

I write as one of the many who ironically start out flexible and end up rigid.

My illness began with a gym membership, a health kick. I had given up smoking and just  wanted to stay healthy, get fitter. That’s ok right?

But as I was running faster, and swimming stronger, and lifting heavier; the illness was very slowly, very quietly, creeping up behind me.

I had started toning up, losing weight, shaping up. I pushed my regime. Then I noticed that I felt guilty if I ate something ‘unhealthy’. Before too long,  I couldn’t HAVE anything unhealthy UNLESS I’d worked out. I pushed myself harder. I lost weight. The numbers started going down. I pushed myself harder. Then I could only eat on gym days… Before I knew it, I was too thin to exercise. I had the frame of a seven year old girl.

But I was thirty.

And trapped.

Over a decade later, I am still flying round the same old cage. There isn’t a bar which I haven’t beaten and broken my wings on.  I know every trick and trait of my captor and yet I can’t break free.

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I hate the January burst of diets and slimming aids and gym memberships, and new

fitness plans. I avert my eyes and ignore the call…

I know that for most, it’s a positive thing. But I write to make the case that we all need to be careful that a hobby doesn’t become unhealthy. This is especially pertinent if you’re prone to perfectionism, highly competitive and have struggled with eating problems / body dysmorphia. It’s fine to get fit, but be aware that Anorexia and other EDs thrive on seemingly ‘good’ initiatives. Be aware that these illnesses are clever, and pervasive. They take your brain prisoner…

And if you’re reading this thinking you’re immune, think again; because eating disorders tiptoe past your rational mind. You can’t OUT THINK them.

If you’re worried someone is developing an eating disorder or becoming obsessive about their diet, TALK to them. Be gentle. Suggest they talk to a professional. Be aware that they might not believe they have a problem. It’s crucial that they know it’s not THEM that you appear to be so against, but the stranger who is controlling their behaviour.

If it’s your intention to change your habits for 2019, try not to buy into the media hype. The diet and exercise industry cannot and should not promise you a new and sparkling existence.

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Mind birdIt seems that the greater my desire to write, the harder it feels. The ongoing presence of my illness makes my mind is so full but so flighty.

“flighty”

A state where I can’t ever stay but can never fully go.

My mind doesn’t soar . It doesn’t open to stretch and show its span. It doesn’t sweep across the wide, wild skies of imagination, or glide over the deep sea of things and people and adventure and fun.

It flutters, one wing tattered, worn away by brush after brush after brush. It flitters unsettled, unspoken. Too weary for words, too driven to rest, and too desperate to stop.

I long for the peace that will let me just slow. Let me focus on a wave, not the sea; the sun, not the skies. I long for the thready pulse of wings to either

soar

or

stop.

Despite almost never writing these days, I am still here and I still have the DESIRE to write, just not the accompanying drive to action. However, I find myself here with minutes to spare and the determination to put something down.

Because it’s important.

To be fair, I know I’m over reacting, which, naturally, doubles my irritation, but it would seem that I’m not beyond being stung by a throwaway comment. Damn.

I’m angry and frustrated with myself. Even more so because I should be better… and bigger… and past it… and all those things that I expect of myself. Obviously, I am not as immune or as desensitised (read: ‘protected’) as I think.

I spent a lovely weekend with old friends. It’s the first time I’ve made a reunion in a long time, and I’m so glad I went. Earlier, I was showing my youngest sister some photos and happily telling her about it, until she asked if everyone had been understanding of my… condition. Well. They were, yes.

I mean, my old friends from way back. They knew me pre illness. They know me. They love me.

Just one teeny statement though, managed to blow a hole in my surface.

“It is a choice. Anorexia IS a choice”

No it’s not.

“It is”

What do you say?

Even a few minutes walking round some rock pools don’t elicit any responses. An unexpected shot. And yeah… I have to admit, I was a little wounded.

So this is my belated response.

I’ll tell you what’s really weird… and not to be written lightly… When someone suffers with Anorexia, it can be so acute, and so very life changing, that it appears odd that it remains something ‘in the abstract’. For example, despite the knowledge that Anorexia is a MENTAL illness, if a radiologist did a brain scan, a patient with an eating disorder (and maybe their loved ones) might almost expect to see large shadows obliterating whole sections of their brain. (Nowadays of course, neuroscience and improving technology seem to be making it possible to identify all sorts of quirks and trends in the structure of the brain). But for most of us who battle this dominant demon of hunger, it remains an imagined shadow, or a toxic spillage seeping into hidden cranial cavities. Of course it won’t show up on a scan. It’s too deadly for that.

I KNOW it’s different. I know it can be a temporary coping mechanism for some, and yes it can be something of a cry to be heard, or even a teenage tantrum for a minority, but for many of us, Anorexia is as impossible to CHOSE as meningitis is to contract. You just wouldn’t think to announce to someone with brain cancer that their illness is a choice. I KNOW it’s “not the same… yade dade yada…” but I’m telling you, this thing that plagues me… this THING that has destroyed a whole decade of my life, isn’t a matter of choice. It’s an illness. As present and as torturously painful as anything physical.

Eating disorders can’t just be selected and applied. They begin so small that they’re invisible; and by the time they’re making changes to your body, they’re bedded down hard.

Choice DOES come into it. But not there.

I’ll tell you where next time.

In the meantime, telling your sick friend that they chose their illness, is as helpful as a kick in the teeth.

#difficult

Without wishing to sound all bah-humbug about it, I REALLY can’t share the sentiment of the song that blares as I push my trolley up the soft drinks aisle in my local supermarket. I realise it’s not supposed to be taken too literally but honestly, the sheer inanity of some idiot’s wish that ‘it could be Christmas every da – aaay” is, at best, teeth grittingly stupid, at worst, utterly irresponsible. (I know for a fact that occurring even once a year increases overspending and subsequent problems with debt for some of the poorest families in the UK.)

The song continues to blare across the store and I swing into the middle aisle in time to catch one woman (who apparently has some inside info about a nationwide dearth of flour that the rest of us aren’t privy to) almost mow down an older lady in her path. Glancing round for someone to share her indignation, she looked at me shaking her head and starting to mutter something. Not really wanting to buy into this her fury, I just smiled sympathetically and shrugged offhandedly. “Christmas, hey?” She grunted disconsolately. “Really does bring out the best and the worst doesn’t it?” For a second, she eyed me with uncertainty and then snorted. “Bloody right” she said.

Thing is, and I bet my stocking this is true; most of us over a certain age would hate the thought of Christmas everyday! The shops are rammed, roads gridlocked, transport more squashed than ever, people more harried and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Even some of my most togetherest friends (poetic licenses granted for Christmas period Ts and Cs apply) struggle at this time of year. Christmas for those affected by any illness can be especially difficult, perhaps because the pain felt by sufferers and their families is brought into such stark contrast by the sense of festive merriment.

As a seasoned Anorexic, I find this time of year to be particularly torturous, so much so that almost every Christmas for the past five years, has in some way contributed to my ending up in inpatient treatment. I can only write from my personal experience, but I want to explain why Christmas with an eating disorder can be so difficult.

1. The fist reason seems obvious. Food is suddenly everywhere. It’s inescapable, and far more so than usual. Supermarkets are cram full of luxury items; not just your standard ice cream. No. The very finest ice cream made with fresh, sweet strawberries, rich chocolate or vanilla pods hand picked by velvet – furred monkeys living in luxury Madagascan tree houses. Shelves are lined with glistening golden wrappings, the finest of wines and giant tubs of cheap chocolates hang out, competitively priced, attractively arranged.

But Anorexics hate food right?

Wrong! But you could be forgiven for thinking so. After all, who in their right mind would starve themselves to within an inch of their life if they enjoyed food?

Well. This is why an eating disorder isn’t the lifestyle choice or the vain whim of a silly young girl who wants to look like a model, although the media have often billed it to be. An eating disorder is a mental illness, and a complex one at that. With the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, Anorexia needs to be taken more seriously by the media and by the fashion industry. It is still so misunderstood.

Back to the food thing… Contrary to popular understanding, Anorexics don’t dislike food. They love food. They long for food. If you are the loved one of a sufferer who swears they don’t like it, don’t be fooled. It’s the illness lying. I’ve known Anorexics who confide that they lie in bed at night, planning meals in such detail, that they feel as though they’ve actually eaten three courses by the time they fall asleep. Others cut pictures out of food magazines to stick in scrap books, watch food programmes and obsess over recipe books. I’ve even heard one clinician refer to this as ‘food porn’.

And all this time, with all this longing, the Anorexic starves.

Doesn’t make sense? That’s because it’s a MENTAL ILLNESS.

2. The second reason Christmas can feel like torture is because many sufferers spend a lot of time and a lot of energy on NOT thinking about food. Personally, I’m one of these. I do a lot to distract myself from a hunger that can sometimes be so raw that it terrifies me.

Because it’s a holiday, often mealtimes become the main source of structure in our unformed days. With all the added drinks and nibbles, the festive period can feel like one, perpetual banquet. This can be terrifying for an eating disorder sufferer because it means they may FEEL as though they have eaten far more than they normally would, and mostly, far more than they actually have (reality is generally very distorted).

I want to explain more because there is so much more to write about, but I fear this is in need of more structure as it is.

I suppose what I really want is to reach out to those unfortunate others who find themselves feeling so desperate and out of control over the next few days. I want to say, “hang in there. the days will pass. It’s not as long as it feels. You are not alone”. I want to speak to families who, through no fault, don’t understand. I want to encourage them to be gentle, not to lose heart, to seek support. A young anorexic / bulimic can’t be shouted / coaxed / bribed out of a mental illness.

And I want to say that somehow, somewhere, Christmas takes place irrespective of our state of health. Christmas takes place regardless of our state of belief even. It takes place for Him, and yet it began for us. In this, and in this alone, I find a flicker of hope.

If you’re reading, believer or not, sufferer or not, I pray you find the peace, health and touch of sparkle that the gift of the Christ child can bring at Christmas. If you’re finding it tough, please, reach out. You don’t have to be alone.

At thirty, I would have things mostly sorted. I mean, I would probably be settled down somewhere, I’d have a good circle of friends and a supportive and engaging church community.  I’d meet the man who could be my best friend for life and therefore be in a stable relationship and I’d have a challenging but fulfilling career.

At forty, I would be a fully grown woman.Although being middle-aged was a very hazy notion, I suppose I had something of an idea that by this point, I’d definitely at peace with myself. I would be content with my lot, and wise in to the ways of the world. I’d have worked abroad with my other half…. perhaps doing some sort of mission work. I’d be established in a teaching career of some kind. I’d certainly have written a couple of books, and maybe have kids or fostered for a while.

I shudder now at the assured faith of my younger self; my blind faith in the power of adulthood.

I think I must have believed that at key points in my life, there would be some sort of ‘latest update’ that would magically download and install overnight. It’d equip me with new software to enhance my resilience, bug fixes, small but significant improvements to my system. Just like the skin care products which companies like L’Oreal and Garnier so thoughtfully tailor to suit the relevant decade of a woman’s life, I thought I’d somehow just be able to apply certain elements to my life. Elements which would be suited to my age and stage… and again, like the miracle face creams, le28099oreal-paris-anti-imperfections-plus-whitening-cream-for-20-review4these would hopefully just get a bit richer as I got older.

I guess I might have believed that I’d still battle depression, but in my naivety, by late thirties, I would have gained victory over it, managing the dark hours with a quiet stoicism, helping others learn to do the same. Anxiety would probably always be present, but by forty, it really wouldn’t have any significant impact on my life. I’d have learned to combat it using my faith, my wisdom, a range of relaxation techniques and possibly my ole’ friend Pregabalin.

Whatever I imagined, one thing I wouldn’t have believed, is that at the ripened age of forty, I would be sitting in a hospital bedroom, typing a blog about Anorexia.

Nor would I have believed that by the time I got to this grand old age, a whole decade of my life would have been hungrily devoured by the same illness that would starve me to the point of death and leave me with the body of a malnourished child.

I’ve been an inpatient for almost nine weeks now..

You’d think by the time I’d endured four different inpatient admissions and three rounds of day treatment, I’d have got used to the agonies of refeeding. Think again. If anything it’s tougher this time than ever. Not that I’m in a different hospital than ever before, and not that my fellow patients aren’t amazing people who I feel privileged to meet. No… more perhaps that each period of recovery seems to ask for more energy than the one previous to it. It seems to demand more bravery, more patience, a higher pain threshold, more nerve.

At risk of sounding discouraging, I think that the longer a person suffers with an eating disorder, the older they get, the more entrenched it becomes and thus the harder it is to recover from. If there is anyone reading here who is suffering with an ED and is considering getting help, I urge you, please, GET HELP.  Do it before it gets worse. Do it before next week, or next month or your next birthday… Do it now and buy back some time because honestly, it might seem unimaginable, but this illness will sink into you until you are saturated. It sinks in a little deeper with each passing minute and before you can wring yourself out, it’ll rinse you of your strength.

The less time you tolerate this illness, the less time it will need you to fight it and the more of your soul you can save.

Get help.

 

There can’t be many instances where your loved ones raise a glass to toast your  mental torment but then again. there probably aren’t that many cases where eating a beef sandwich is an achievement worthy of celebration.

Perhaps those in the loop will actually understand the bizarre situation I’m writing about, but if you’re a ‘normal’ person, you might struggle.

Wait..! Did I just use the term ‘normal’?

I can hear some of the cries of protest. “…But there’s NO SUCH THING AS NORMAL…” Protestations jet from all corners of the philosophical, semantic and *wince* pedantic realm. No such thing. Everyone’s weird. Everyone’s normal. There IS no normal.

But there IS. There IS in the tangled, screwed up world of we Eating Disorder folk. If you disagree, you might want to read on because I’m going to tell you about what normal is, often by arguing the case for what it’s not.  (If that goes over your head, don’t waste mental energy on it. Reading on will give you a clearer idea.)

“Normal” is our friends who happily pick a sandwich in a deli without an onslaught of mathematical conundrums running riot in their brain. “Normal” can actually have ANY kind of drink they like without even a whisper of a ‘value for calories’ haunting their thoughts.

Normal can choose food to satisfy their taste buds and not to keep them as light as possible. Normal doesn’t even think twice about adding one extra raspberry to their (carefully weighed) bowl of lowest calorie cereal.

Normal doesn’t consider black coffee a ‘snack’ or stir-fry an indulgent meal. It wouldn’t cast a suspicious eye over the size of a tangerine, or swear that an apple has the potential to be fattening. Nor would it question the amount of calories / fat / carbohydrate in a carrot. It wouldn’t distrust the carefully stated amounts of these ‘anorexic-life-threatening’ printed on each product, or regard cauliflower as an enemy to be avoided at all costs.

You see..?

Normal doesn’t experience eating as a trigger for a sort of inexplicably acute mental pain. It doesn’t really begin to understand that ‘food’ is merely an assortment of numbers. (Despite our health conscious Food Standards people’s best efforts!) It doesn’t ‘get’ that a carrot is 35, a berry, 2 and if you throw in a spoonful of yoghurt you’ve exceeded the limit. (Scrape half away, then share some with the sink…)

Normal might be conscious of the numbers, but it’s not ruled by them. It doesn’t carefully bite each Malteser in half to ensure it has exactly half the stated amount. It doesn’t have to ignore the body’s cries for rest in order to complete the requisite amount of high intensive ‘burn off’ exercises before or after a calculated amount of food.

Normal doesn’t FEEL fat growing ON them if they eat something frightening. It doesn’t feel the rush of shame and disgust if they slip up and allow too much food to enter the forbidding mouth. It won’t suffer an onslaught of blind fear, the compulsion to induce vomiting or crapping or even the wild urge to cut fat OFF any given part of themselves.

I realise there are degrees of ‘normal’; a continuum even. This illness, any Eating Disorder, defies all concept of normality and in doing so, isolates sufferers in a sadistic and divisive way.

As someone who, for almost thirty years, was pretty ‘normal’ about food, I feel somewhat justified, perhaps even qualified, to attempt to explain that there really IS such a thing as ‘normal’ in the world I, and so many others, inhabit.

The next nine years of my life have literally been stolen from me.

I find it incomprehensible that for almost three decades, I could actually EAT a meal without attaching any feelings or significance to the food at all. Nor can I recall how I might have RELISHED the chance to actually SIT DOWN and watch a whole film without the raging impulse to burn off calories, the torture of that insane edict.

It’s too hard to properly explain how Anorexia has unpicked and rewoven my ‘normality’, but I hope, in some small way, I’ve conveyed the havoc it wrecks upon its victims, some too young to ever have experienced the luxury and freedom of normality

I hope these descriptions may bring some small solace to those who don’t feel understood and information for those who want to understand.

There’s no such thing as normal, but there is ‘abnormal’, and this illness is one example of that.

Someday, I hope to eat again, with the freedom of that first part of my life.

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Doesn’t do a lot for my point, but I do love a bit of Edward Monkton…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Redefining ‘Normal’

Here we are again. Supermarket aisles cram-full of anxious shoppers; shelves a-sparkle with opulently – packaged festive treats and the air space crowded with the blaring wish that It Could Be Christmas Everyday. I sound like  a humbug from the start but I’m not, I’m a struggling Anorexic.

Love it or hate it, Christmas is a truly mixed affair for most.

Yes the shininess and magic, the warmth of the hearth, and the gifts and the glitter and the glitz.

But oh! the bickering, the sadness, the missing and the grief filled, the stress and the gluttony abound!

The pressures of a Westernised Christmas seem to begin earlier and grow faster every single year! Those beautifully designed cards that gave you a little tummyglow when you picked them up in Marks a few weeks back, you’ve got to write them all and get them in the post, a new deadline you HAVE to meet. That adorable decoration that you chose in a magic moment, it needs hanging and then housing…

I’m not trying to depress anyone although you’d be forgiven for thinking it.  I’m just presenting the case that Christmas can really be, “the best of times AND the worst of times” for all of us.

Christmas with Anorexia then, is even more polarised.

The fevered chaos of Anorexia defies the norm on any other calender date but come Christmas…. well… it runs a temperature off the gauge.

I know because even as I type, I’m slightly delirious: my head swollen with seasonal dread, my hands shaking with unsated desire.

As for most people suffering with an eating disorder, Christmas loses most of its ‘proper’ meaning amidst the intolerable warring surge of temptation and terror. Some houses are literally, “choc full”.  It’s so much about FOOD… and not just any old food.. Oh no! Gone are the 11 months of smug self control; of Deliciously Ella and all the high protein, ‘clean eating’.  Not a sniff of the spiralised substitutions and berry laden breakfasts  In its place, adverts parade gastronomic delights,  luxury foodstuff dressed in shiny, unapologetic full fat robes; mouth wateringly glistening with seductive spice and the promise of satiety. For those living with anorexia, it’s like pouring bottled water over your head in front of a dying child in an arid land.

My Anorexic head aches all the more as the chocolates, cheese and port pass me by. I pick up a sausage and hold it near my mouth but my teeth are set like a portcullis and my mouth has turned to stone.

It’s a popular misconception that Anorexics don’t LIKE food, don’t LIKE eating. I can see why people might think this. After all, we don’t tend to tuck in to… well… anything much. Instead, we politely refuse dinners, the offer of a crisp, the chance to have a snack.

(Note: My ‘we’ is a wardrobe behind which my vulnerable ‘I’, hovers uncomfortably).

To help the uninitiated comprehend a little, I often liken Anorexia to a top secret agent who is holding a loved one to ransom. The agent is using inhumane methods to extract information. Most of us would cave in, I suspect. It would be too much to bear to see your nearest and dearest tortured. With the eating disorder as tormentor though, the one who holds the intel is utterly determined to remain silent, rendering the captive a martyr for the cause.

Picture the torture, sleep deprivation, water torture, perhaps a continuous brainbashing, Pinter style.

Starved to the point of death, fine food is plated and placed JUST out of reach, fresh bread, hot soups, Christmas pudding…

A stolid refusal to talk doesn’t mean the starved prisoner doesn’t want the food, because WANT! WANT is an understatement! His demented mind is driven crazy by it! He craves it so much that even his bones scream out for it to coat them, cover them, heal them.

But no.

No; the captor will not allow it and the agent will not talk. Locked in fatal battle.

Meanwhile the quiet captive body is a table on which the negotiations are played out.

This describes my everyday for the past decade, but at Christmas it’s worse; more enduring, more desperate; because it’s not about the baby Jesus, a gift to humanity. I know it should be and thankfully,  my heart still swells a little at the thought. But even as the spirit swells, it meets that which tightly binds it, and so hurts all the more.

My chest hurts and I am afraid. I am afraid of my illness and I know thatCandle-calendar unlike the analogy I used,  I wouldn’t die a martyr. Far from it. Rather, a weak and wasted waif who just didn’t have the courage.

If you are living with an ED this Christmas my heart goes out to you. It’s such a hard time. Please know, whoever you are, you are not alone in the struggle.

 

 

 

world-mental-health-dayOctober 10th 2016: a day designated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as one of those awareness type days where everyone is meant to have their mind jogged about the existence of mental health and the kind of struggles people can have.

I had no intention of writing, but the surge of mental health promotion that hit me when I turned on my laptop was so ‘full frontal’ that I almost feel I have a sort of obligation to this little gathering of mental moaning and metaphor that is my blog.

The public frequently hear the term ‘mental health’ and, despite the best efforts of organisations like WHO and MIND, there are still a variety of stigmas (what’s the plural of stigma? – Clumsy phraseology, I apologise) attached and often, that stigma either shrinks from it, or tuts at it dismissively, cos who hasn’t had a mental health problem nowadays? Who hasn’t seen someone exonerated on the grounds of ‘ mental health’.

Where am I going with this you ask? (I’m not entirely sure myself)

Thing is folks, we all ‘HAVE’ mental health. It’s true!  The term is used imprecisely (a fine one to talk!) because we often use it to refer to a person’s POOR mental health, their mental ILL health, I suppose.

Many people I know think ‘mental health’ is something they don’t have, because it’s Anorexia or Schizophrenia or any of those crazy things.. Actually though, I’d argue that there isn’t this clear line dividing mental health and mental illness.

Mental health is a continuum. It’s a gauge which can be set higher or lower in particular individuals; higher or lower at certain times in each and ever one of us.

I think what I’m saying, in the most convoluted way possible, is that I sometimes sigh and roll my eyes at all these awareness days… I sometimes tire of hearing ardent advocates shouting and waving banners about one thing and another… (I am hanging my head, a contrite cynic – if you’ve ever heard of such a thing!) BUT, this mental health awareness stuff IS something worth stopping and thinking about. It’s worth it because it is something which affects us all, no matter the extent. Mental HEALTH is something we all possess and something we need to nurture in ourselves and in those around us.

Looking after a person’s mental health isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us. Days like today give us the opportunity to have a quick look at ways we can make it possible to reduce the rising percentage of people struggling with mental illness.

https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/world-mental-health-day

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If I wersquirrele a squirrel, I’d never make it through the winter.

I’ve written some notes for a post in a notebook, but I’ve hidden the book so well that I can’t find it. (This is despite ransacking my room which, as a direct result, now looks like I’ve been burgled).

I wanted to continue my thoughts on ‘being normal’, not an easy concept due to its being riddled with both semantic and philosophical potholes.

So this little snippet – post is like a trailer:

‘ Coming Soon To a Blog Near You’

Meanwhile, I’ll continue my search for the missing script!