Consistency and Cutting

Warning: this entry contains pictures of me in my pants. Sorry about that.

I started this year sober and motivated, with the lofty goal of attending the gym consistently. Gaz’s generous gift of a year’s gym membership for my birthday in early January was going to be the catalyst for improvement in my strength and physical fitness, and the motivation I needed to re-introduce deadlifts and finally start bench pressing.

True to my word, I started attending the gym 3 days a week. I went twice in the period between Christmas and New Year, smashing out a new back squat PB of 102.5kg 1RM @ ~77kg bodyweight. Unfortunately in February my knees started playing up (after niggly pain on and off for some time) necessitating some time off and a drop in squat weight to less than half of my new PB. Sad face. I later discovered, after much research and reading, that this was potentially caused by a quad dominance. I have not had any problems since I incorporated more work on my hamstrings to balance out my legs. Another gym break occurred in May/June because of the house move, but aside from that I have attended the gym consistently: week in, week out.

As well as working out religiously, I started documenting my lifts consistently. Rather than turning up and winging it — doing what I felt like that day — I came up with a plan that targeted different muscle groups on different days, with accessory lifts and a range of low rep/high weight and high rep/low weight stuff. (I was very much aided in the draft of a plan by lifting insta-friends and Google.) Documenting reps and weights meant that each week I was able to increase one or the other: progressively overloading my muscles to encourage growth and increase strength.

Sobriety and this new-found consistency meant that I started to drop some weight early on in the year. I lost 10lbs without really trying. Although I was confident and happy at that weight, I was particularly liking the increase in muscle definition that losing 10lbs had given me and I decided to lean out a little more. I wanted to make the results of all my efforts visible.

Unfortunately it wasn’t that simple. My attempts at furthering my losses didn’t seem to make much difference; I was bouncing back and forth between 150-160lbs (68-72kg). Not only that, but I was feeling weaker and I would often stand up and get a ‘head rush’/low blood sugar feeling. I was concerned I was under-eating despite being in ♥ with food, because I didn’t know how to properly fuel the work I was putting in to both my lifts and my other fitness exploits (running, taekwon-do, pole dancing etc). I was eating like a sedentary person, rather than an “athlete” (for lack of a better word).

In June, I finally decided to seek help, and ordered a fat loss template from Renaissance Periodization. Now, you may recall that I’d ordered a diet plan from a “personal trainer” back in December. This original plan left me underwhelmed, which I think reflected in my previous entry on the subject, but I decided to modify it and stick it out for a bit. However, within days of posting that entry, I’d queried some bits in the template and got back an answer that could be summed up as “because I said so”. I don’t do anything in life on the basis of “because I said so” and especially not when it comes to something as important (and full of bro science) as nutrition, so I chucked it in as a bad idea.

Anyway, back to the template from RP… like the original plan I’d ordered, it broke down macros into 5 or 6 meals across the day. However, it did so according to training or non training days and workout intensity, and crucially (unlike the other plan) everything was backed up by references to scientific studies. The plans themselves are written by a team of doctors, dietitians etc: all with actual qualifications and everything. I felt more comfortable with the template (which in itself was non-restrictive and flexible) which straight away gave me the confidence I needed to fit it into my intensely busy schedule.

RP recommend a 12 week cut maximum, followed by 12 weeks minimum at maintenance. This gives your metabolism time to recover and beds in your new metabolic set point (the body weight set point is a theory in nutritional science that suggests we have a “comfortable weight” and that the body will use various signals and hormones to get us back to that point despite increases and decreases in calorie intake; it has its critics but has been observed in animals). Resetting this metabolic “set point” helps prevent bouncing back to your old weight, which is a common problem in a lot of diet programs and weight loss systems.

Within a couple of days of starting the new template, the dizziness and side effects from low blood sugar were gone. I was eating HUGE amounts of food compared to what I was used to. ALL THE CARBS! Holy macaroni. Not only that, but the weight loss started easily and immediately: I’ve lost over 10lbs in just shy of 8 weeks. Losing weight while eating all the foods? Winning!

weight loss progress over the course of 6-7 months
I have lost significant amounts of fat from my stomach, hips, back, chest and face. Also boobs. Bye bye boobies :(

Perhaps even more importantly than losing this weight, I have smashed out some fucking EPIC lifts. Yesterday, after struggling with my squats since my knee problems, I did sets of 5 at 40, 50, 60 and 70kg. 3 and 2 reps at 80kg then 1 each at 90kg and 100kg. I am within touching distance of my Christmas squat PB and I weigh 10kg less. I finally incorporated the deadlift back into my program and am already doing reps at 80kg, which thrashes one of my new year goals “deadlift my bodyweight” without even really trying. This morning I benched 40kg for a handful of reps (bench is my weakest lift by far) after starting the year barely able to lift the bar for all 5 sets. Add this to running PBs at my 5k and half marathon distances (and a couple of 10km races coming up to thrash those too) and finally completing my long-held goal of completing a pull-up (albeit with dodgy AF form)…

& I am just buzzing! If I maintain the consistency (including trialling a 4 day split over summer), and see the cut through the final month, what else can I achieve? A double bodyweight squat, 100kg deadlift and 50kg bench seem like good goals to be going on with. Fingers crossed!

I chose to drink. It was rubbish.

(I originally posted this on reddit, but want it recording here as part of my journey.)

I had a drink on Saturday night. I made the active choice to have a drink, rather than caving to cravings or anything like that; it was one of my best friend’s pre-wedding celebrations and as I can’t/won’t drink at the wedding, I decided to toast the couple over the weekend.

I expected to feel really tipsy because I’ve not drunk in 8 months. It didn’t really affect me at all. That scared me: my alcohol tolerance was dangerously high before I stopped drinking and it feels like nothing has changed. I was worried this would make me feel like “OK, one more” and another, and another. (It didn’t, but it easily could have.)

I didn’t feel like it made any difference whatsoever to my ability to have fun or relax. (I am a social/outgoing person and have never needed a drink to act like a fool!)

It didn’t make me enjoy the evening any more than I could or would have.

I did wake up feeling groggy and shaky the following morning. It was very mild, but I felt it. Such a difference from the clarity and peace of mind I’ve grown used to.

I did have strong drinking dreams last night, which deeply upset me.

I gained 3lbs over the weekend. (I’m halfway through a 12 week cut so this is intensely annoying.)

So: only downsides, and no upsides to having had a drink. A deep sense of it having not been worth it. And that makes it sort of worth it: because it’s squashed the niggly doubts I had not-so-long ago about why I’m doing this – making this journey sober – and reinforced every single reason I had for stopping in the first place. It’s killed the “just have one” voices.

I’m writing this because in the early days of stopping, I regularly re-read the desperate plea for help that I wrote [on reddit] when I needed the encouragement to stop. I hope too that in my future sober weeks & months I can come to use this post as a source of strength should I need it.

Stupid Goals: Project Recurring Income

I’ve been stressed again lately. The ups and downs of hormones, the DOOM of summer holidays, the move, the kids, the usual shit. When I get stressed I start to ponder what I’m doing with my life and whether I should get a proper job.

Unfortunately, I’m basically unemployable; there’s no way I could go back to a 9—5 at this point and make it work. Sometimes though, the call of being able to switch off and walk away at the end of the day, of being able to take a day off sick without worrying about what’s piling up, of having an actual proper holiday… the call of all that is really bloody strong.

Of course the reality is that while a 9—5 job has those advantages it would also massively impact upon the flexibility in my schedule, my ability to work out while the kids are at school, would add wraparound childcare costs and all sorts of additional loads and problems.

So instead of being a moany arse (OK, as well as being a moany arse) I sat down and had a think about how I can achieve the two things I really need right now, those things being:

  1. Regular money (as freelance income is so unpredictable) to tide me over during times like e.g. summer holidays where my working hours are massively curtailed
  2. Time off (an actual holiday would be amazeballs) to de-stress

And how better to achieve than by setting some wildly unachievable, mostly stupid goals?! Something crazy like “raising 20k to buy my ex out” (which I mostly did with mortgage, but the hard work and kindness of strangers meant I could afford to go that route) or “paying off my mortgage in 5 years” (which I didn’t manage, but did eat enough into it to give myself enough equity to buy a new house!). So my track record isn’t great, but it HAS given me focus and achieved things that I wouldn’t have done had I not even tried.

Luckily, I can probably achieve the second “need” by tackling the first, which means “all” I have to do is find a way to raise enough money per month to cover my half of bills and regular expenses. This means that additional freelance income can then go in a) towards the tax bills, which regularly screw me up, b) towards my savings, whereby I might eventually have enough to go to the seaside or something. I reckon I need to get to the point where I have £750 per month guaranteed with usual more flexible work/income on top.

How am I going to raise a guaranteed fixed £750 per month? I’ve only got two things on my list so far:

  • Stop being scared of offering maintenance contracts to clients. One of the things I really struggle with, even after 6 years of working for myself, is feeling like I am ripping clients off. Although I value my time and experience and charge a decent amount for coding time, I don’t like hooking people into recurring fees as I don’t want them to feel I’m pocketing their hard earned cash and doing nothing. However, there’s a genuine need for some of my clients to have regular services — like back-ups and upgrades — that if I don’t do, won’t get done.
  • Work on my bloody “product”. I have a product, that ‘thing’ everyone talks about as a must-have for recurring income. I have a product that works, is good at what it does, and makes a handful of sales a month… but that I ignore for 90% of the year. I’m talking about my mail form, of course. I need to stop procrastinating, and put the effort into improving what’s there. The membership option and form builder aren’t used (because the form is mostly used by devs who can write their own forms) so I need to rip that out and then concentrate on moving into other markets using my strength: starting by creating a JMF-brand of spam protection add-ons for other form providers.

I have also considered working a fixed amount of hours in-office with a client or agency per month, but I’ve trialled this before and it didn’t work. I’m in a better place mentally now, but it’s very easy for these placements to feel same-y and stagnant so it would have to be for someone — or some project — I really care about. I need to think more about this one.

Plenty to be getting on with though. First step: reach out to clients who would benefit from a monthly maintenance package. Project recurring income is on! Watch this space…

Lead photo by rawpixel.

A Tale of Two err… Five Halfs

Half marathons, that is. This year has unintentionally turned into the “year of the half marathon”, with one done (or planned) for almost every month so far. I didn’t start the year intending to run so many races, but I did want to get my running mojo back on track. Here’s a quick rundown (geddit) of the halfs so far:

Ironbridge Half Marathon, March 2018

I had a score to settle with Ironbridge half. I’d entered this race a couple of years ago as it’s right on my doorstep, but poor mental health around the time of the race (and the reputation of the course being quite difficult) meant I ended up skipping it. This year, despite my lack of long run training (surprise surprise), I told myself I had to complete it whatever happened.

The route takes you out of Telford Centre, down the Silkin Way towards and through the historic town of Ironbridge and surrounding areas and then back up to Telford. It’s a multi-terrain course with roughly equal amounts of trail path and road. There are some inclines throughout including a tough hill around mile 8.

I thoroughly enjoyed the run, in part due to running with a local friend for most of the race with free-flowing conversation making the time pass all the quicker. The weather was just right on the day. I ran/walked the hill at mile 8 (heavy focus on the walking) as I had no intentions of pushing for any sort of personal best. Around mile 10 my running partner told me to go on without her as she wanted to walk the rest and so I plodded on.

Around 1km from the finish I happened upon a runner from my local club (but whom I’d not actually met previously) who was in a bad way, and ended up supporting her a short distance with her partner, before detouring to the side of the course while we waited for paramedics. When the paramedics arrived and I wasn’t needed, I finished the race with a speedy-looking sprint up the final bit of hill to cheers from supporters.

Despite intending just to finish, and the 15-20 minutes spent helping another runner, I completed in 2:33:26 which was just shy of my previous half marathon time (and personal best) of 2:34.

Photography (c) Chris Richards

May the Fourth, May 2018

The ‘May the Fourth Be With You’ half marathon is a personal favourite of mine, and having completed it twice previously it was a no-brainer that I’d enter again.

The course is 13.1 (ish) miles up and down the beautiful hills of Church Stretton in Shropshire with a peak elevation of 1,693 ft. It’s a tough challenge, but what else can you expect from a race organiser called “How Hard Can It Be Events”? This year was no exception, where an overly fast start saw me dead on my feet by mile 8. I literally thought I might die in the hills, with nobody there to find me.

Nonetheless, finish I did, and in 3:13:04 which saw me thrash my 2017 time of 3:37:45.

Not a happy bunny

Edinburgh Marathon Festival, May 2018

When I found out that several of my friends were taking part in the Edinburgh half marathon, I saw it as an excellent excuse for a dirty weekend away (teehee), taking advantage of the bank holiday the Monday after the run. This plan was nearly scuppered when our house sale completed the day before our intended date of arrival in Scotland.

As if that little ‘setback’ wasn’t enough, I’d managed to do something incredibly painful to my knee during the actual house move and was worried that I’d not be able to run even if we made it to Scotland. To top it all off, I also acquired the shits in the days before and every meal was quickly evacuated from my bowels: not conducive to pre-race nutrition/carb loading.

Personal ‘issues’ aside, with a bit of jiggery pokery and an accommodating airbnb host meant we were able to adjust to the move and arrive later than planned and crack on with project sexy times/running.

The weather in Edinburgh was stunning – I couldn’t have asked for better. Sunny while we were wandering about doing the “touristy” stuff, and then cool with cloud cover on the morning of the run. The route was mostly flat, which was surprising for a capital city renowned for its hills. I ran with a friend to support her round; my knee held throughout (but was fucked afterwards) and Immodium kept the contents of my guts out of my pants (ahhh running, the classy sport) and we finished in 2:46:26.

Shrewsbury Half Marathon, June 2018

Shrewsbury half was a weird one for me. I entered on the spur of the moment rather than signing up with friends, and decided on the day to push myself rather than plodding along for the sake of it. I hadn’t checked the course prior to entry (or running) and was left a little bit shell-shocked by exactly how hilly it was, with some particularly sharp inclines including the famous Wyle Cop. I don’t know why, Shrewsbury isn’t exactly a flat town!

I pushed hard, forcing myself to run up all the hills, letting my strong strong quads do as much of the work as I could (& tbh, this is where living where I do comes into its own, as you can’t train without at least one hill). I managed to maintain a good steady pace and didn’t slow down until the second half of the race when I caught sight of chap running for a male suicide charity at mile 8-9. With the anniversary of my brother’s death round the corner, it was all I needed to break down and I spent the final 3-4 miles run/walk/running whilst crying my eyes out.

By the final mile I was spent, physically and emotionally, and thought I would have to walk the last stretch. Two lovely women (who’s names I failed to note) kept me going in that final mile with a strong sprint to finish in 2:19:51. A lovely new PB!

Piece of Cake, July 2018

Another ‘How Hard Can It Be’ event, the Piece of Cake Half Marathon is another trail run in the lovely Carding Mill Valley in Church Stretton. The ascents never seem to feel quite as vicious as the May Fourth half, but it’s a similar style of route with the bonus of a fantastic 2(ish) mile downhill stretch to the finish, which makes for an adrenaline-rush if you are brave enough to pelt down the gravel paths at speed.

Like Shrewsbury half, I ran the Piece of Cake on my own (for someone who claims to be a social runner I’ve suddenly been entering a lot of races on my lonesome), although there wasn’t a single part of the course where I felt anything but part of a massive community. I cannot emphasise enough how brilliant these events are for camaraderie, support and general low-pressure “have a great time” running.

I ran PoC in brand new Vivobarefoot Primus Trail SG (mens, because the women’s are never wide enough) which apparently makes me a nutter because normal people break in running shoes before taking them out on a 13 mile run?

I finished in an awesome (for me) 3:02:07, although I was so stiff afterwards I didn’t move for the rest of the day.

Photography (c) Gareth Griffiths — look, I’m actually flying!

Next half? Lake Vyrnwy in September. Well, unless I can squeeze a cheeky half into August, of course.

Moving Tales: Part 2

In my last post about our recent house move I expressed frustration about a series of relatively minor but annoying problems that we’d had so far. The two main issues were the lack of hot water, and a mystery leak.

Shortly after posting I started pulling out wood cladding in the downstairs bathroom (part of the garage conversion) and found that the reason we had a water leak was because the pipe that took waste water from the sink and downstairs shower was not actually attached to the piping that should have routed it out of the bathroom and through to what’s left of the garage. Water was literally pouring onto the floor every time the shower or sink was used. Annoyingly, this had obviously been a problem for some time, as there were clear water marks and residue of damp that had been painted over. I called a local plumber in and had it sorted for £50, job done.

The hot water issue was slightly more complicated. Gaz and I fiddled with the boiler, we replaced fuses in mystery switches in the garage, we tried the thermostat on the wall but all to no avail. In the end I called in my regular trusty gas engineer (Telford Gas & Heating, highly recommend) to take a look assuming — hoping — it’d be something as simple as the boiler needing a service.

Unfortunately, life is never that simple. I knew that the problem was a little more complicated when, during the initial consult & having opened the airing cupboard to see the pipework to and from the hot water tank, my engineer uttered the fatal words “what on earth is that”. We were quoted circa £850 to fix the massive piping cock-ups that had been made previously, which we managed to scrape together, and the work was scheduled for this morning (9th July)

In the mean time, to keep us on our toes, the house decided to throw a little electrics issue at us. One evening after school, Izzy turned her bedroom light on and the upstairs electrics & downstairs bathroom lights went out. At first I panicked and thought the leak had reoccurred and was seeping into a light socket or something, but couldn’t find any evidence of that. Attempts to reset the RCD on the fuseboard wouldn’t work, and it’d immediately trip again. After 3 days of ignoring the issue like the nice responsible homeowners that we are, Gaz suggested it might be related to a switch in the loft that appeared to not do anything that he’d fiddled with when he was hiding some of our junk. Lo and behold, after climbing back up there and switching it off, the electrics came back on. Tada!

Anyway, back to the hot water. The gas engineer and his colleague turned up this morning and immediately started trying to make sense of the pipes while I cracked on with work. Just before 10am I emailed Gaz to tell him I was hearing a lot of perplexed “jesus, this is a mess” type noises coming from upstairs which didn’t sound great. 20 minutes later and I was called upstairs to the landing, where the floorboards had been removed to expose further pipework that I can only describe as akin to a game of Snake.

I’m not an expert on central heating installation or plumbing etc but it definitely didn’t require expert skills to see that there were Big Issues afoot. With that, on top of the work that was scheduled to be done this morning, and the reality of the state of the system, our best option (short of bumbling along with what we have for the foreseeable) is to replace the whole central heating system: pipework, hot water cylinder, radiators, possibly even the boiler at an estimated cost £5,000-£6,000. This is before we factor in the problems likely to be caused by lifting floorboards (i.e. removal of the laminate in the bedroom for access).

To say I’m furious is an understatement. That someone would knowingly misrepresent their house to get an artificially inflated sale price fully in the knowledge that we have two young children for whom hot water, reasonable plumbing and working electrics are, y’know, somewhat important; to look those kids in the eye and reel off the story of her husband’s sudden death to engender sympathy; to lie to the solicitors about “not being able to find the boiler certificate” knowing full well there isn’t one because the system was installed by an unqualified fucknugget; and, finally, leaving a “new home” card behind wishing “happy memories” when you know you’ve screwed over your buyer to the tune of several thousand pounds? Fuck, furious doesn’t even come close to how I feel.

Still, life lesson learned. Don’t be a dick and skimp to move faster (like we did), get the most in depth survey even if it costs you a small fortune in the short term. Ultimately, it may save you you a fuck ton more later on.

Lead photo by Joel Barwick.

Self employment and mental health

Self employment / freelancing and mental health issues seem to go hand in hand. The stress of finding work, maintaining momentum, dealing with all the admin etc, not to mention restricted access to Actual Humans (besides the postman) and the feelings of isolation this can bring, lack of holiday and sick pay causing freelancers to feel like they have to be “always on”… all massive contributors to stress and mental health issues.

From a personal perspective, I have recurring mental/emotional problems and my work is usually the first thing to suffer if I’m experiencing one of “those” days. This in itself can trigger feelings of inadequacy and guilt, putting me in a downward spiral. But, as someone with a mental health condition brought on by a relatively predictable syndrome (hello PMDD) self-employment is not always the stressor. In fact, it can sometimes be the cure: the chicken soup for the soul.

I’m not tied to Mon-Fri / 9—5 working hours

If I’m having the sort of day that kicks me in the guts from the second I open my eyes, where getting out of bed and facing the world seems impossible, I just don’t. I soak up the comfort of the warm snuggly duvet and I treat myself to an extra hour. The indulgence can often be a band-aid on invisible wounds, enough to get me to take the first step back into reality.

And when it doesn’t work? I can double down, bury my head under the covers and catch up on Saturday. Or at stupid-o-clock of an evening when the kids are in bed.

(Photo by Sonja Langford)

And allows me to exercise

Working a schedule outside of the norm allows me to sub an hour at my desk for an hour in the gym, or an hour on the road training for my next race. Exercise is a huge contributor to better mental health (it’s scientifically proven!) and being outdoors massively benefits my mood, my self esteem and my overall health.

I can juggle my calendar

Because my issues generally fit within my cycle, I am able to fit my work around this. I don’t have to drag myself into work just because it’s a Monday, or meet a client just because some dev manager or boss has stuck it in my diary.

This week I am post-period, and so I will be prone to hyper-concentration, greater sparks of inspiration, confidence & an increased libido greatly improves my people skills (believe it or not!) so now is a great time to work on things I’ve been putting off or new projects that need creativity. By the end of next week this will have a fizzled out and I will be anxious and needy. I will avoid meetings with new clients and difficult phone calls. After that I may get another short period of increased productivity, and then I will need space for my temper; it is not a good time for me to deal with clients who don’t pay on time (for them, I mean).

Finding a full time / office job that would give me the freedom to organise my time and my work into 28 day blocks would be next to impossible, and would massively contribute to the guilt I feel for not being on “top form” 24/7 and in turn worsen my symptoms. And so…

It reduces the guilt

The last time I worked in an office, I spent the majority of my time ‘on-edge’ and feeling guilty. Guilty for needing flexibility, guilty for needing mental support and compassion for nearly 2 weeks of every four, guilty for feeling like I was letting my team down, and for a long time just guilty for the inability to put a name to the problem that I had.

I was very privileged to work for a boss who was understanding and supportive, but even the most compassionate of people have to draw a line when their profits and productivity are threatened. I avoid most of this as a freelancer by utilising the flexibility of hours and schedule, as mentioned, which lessens the burden and eases the symptoms.

I can choose my clients

Beyond sculpting my schedule into something that works for me, I help avoid inter-cycle flare-ups by working with only people who are sympathetic to my needs. It doesn’t have to be someone who’s intimately familiar with mental health issues or working with someone with PMDD, rather just a case of finding clients who are fine receiving an email at 8pm rather than 8am, or who trust that I can balance out a shit day with more great days in return.

Picking my own clients also allows me to reject people who I don’t think I’ll get along with either through a conflict of beliefs or simply mismatched personalities. It’s so much easier to produce great work for great clients and feel good about it.

I can choose my own path

Conventional advice would have us believe that to optimise your ‘wellness’ and ‘work / life balance’ you have to set strict boundaries, never reply to e-mails outside of the 9—5, never get personal with clients or allow work into your “home life”. That’s great if it works for other people, but if I never replied to emails outside of the 9—5 I’d miss out on a chunk of my day when I’m at my best (or busy doing the school run). If I didn’t get personal with clients I wouldn’t have the great relationships that I have with some of them.

It’s not for everyone, but my balance and my wellness comes from ignoring the conventional and choosing my own rules and my own path.

Lead photo by Tim Goedhart

Appearances can be deceptive, and other moving tales

Having blogged back in February about jumping head first and putting an offer on a local property that we were not really ready to buy, we finally exchanged and completed on the 22nd.

Excitement and trepidation had been building for some time, and with the help of friends and family we prepped and packed virtually everything that could be prepped and packed. Every room was thoroughly cleaned as it was emptied and once the keys were in our hands, we were away!

messy living room with upturned furniture
Moving day chaos with upturned sofa

My expectations were high for the new house, having been showcased as something that we could just move in to. With recent improvements to the bathrooms, a relatively modern conversion in the garage, new-ish windows, a decent kitchen etc it ticked all the boxes. I wasn’t keen on some of the paint colour choices, but smother everything in magnolia and you can’t go wrong (at least in the short term).

Unfortunately, life is never that simple. The move itself was fine, I’m never particularly bothered about packing and moving, but every day since has thrown up challenges.

The whole house was dirty with dog hair and debris like false nails left in drawers and in the carpet in my son’s room. There’s windows that jam, the extractor hood over the hob blew on the first use (and not just a fuse, it’s actually fucked). None of the internal doors fit properly in their frames which means they don’t shut properly, there’s no hot water and we’re not sure why, the back door drops in the frame when you open it and it won’t shut again, and there’s a mystery leak causing water to seep through the garage which seemed minor at first but we’ve just discovered is also affecting the cupboard under the stairs so suddenly becomes a big deal.

Walls had been painted between our initial viewings and the sale for some utterly bizarre reason, and every paint job was terrible with the various previous colours showing through brush marks on the walls. There’s screws half-in door handles, we removed a pinboard that was attached to a wall with an entire packet of blu tack, and we found a mystery Christmas present under the stairs. It wasn’t even a good one.

The smell of dog, probably not helped by the water leak, is overwhelming despite vacuuming the carpet again and again and suddenly explains why she had a lot of air fresheners running during the viewings. There’s scratch marks in doors and the conservatory windows where they were obviously shut away during the day.

Every house has its quirks, and it’ll take time to find and fix (or come to terms with) those in this one, but the huge disconnect between my expectations and the reality is crushing.

Update 2018-06-05: having ripped back some of the vinyl in the converted garage bathroom this morning, the leak appears to be coming from the shower, which is a lot easier to fix than if it were e.g. coming from upstairs. Still a twat, but less of a twat than I thought.

Lead photo by Stephanie Watters Flores. Not my new house, obviously, I’m just being dramatic.

The state of dry drinking in the UK

As I rapidly approach my 5th month sober I can’t help but reflect on the state of dry (sober) drinking in the UK.

I have a bit of a reputation amongst friends & it goes a little something like this… if I happened to find myself in a cocktail bar with a reasonable selection of cocktails, choice anxiety often meant the only logical conclusion was to purchase one of everything on the menu. I have dropped over £200 in a single transaction to save myself from having to pick a drink.

Luckily (for my friends and my liver) I like to share.

Photo by Helena Yankovska

My sobriety hasn’t ended my social life, far from it. I still visit pubs and clubs and bars. However, I can no longer drop £200 on drinks, though not for lack of trying!

My biggest problem these days isn’t too much choice but the total opposite: for the sober drinker, the choice isn’t “which of these expensive cocktails” but “pepsi or lemonade” and let me tell you, there’s only so many pints of lemonade you can drink on a night out before your stomach feels like it’s going to explode. Even worse, the introduction of the sugar tax means that now many bars are subbing full sugar soft drinks for the diet equivalent rather than put up their prices, and I think diet drinks taste like piss.

I thought that this problem was caused by living in a small rural town, but the bars in the neighbouring town of Shrewsbury have an equally shit sober selection. Further, a recent trek to London (which I anticipated as having a much greater selection) for a friend’s birthday left me just as disappointed. For the first time in my life the only bars I can rely on are Wetherspoons, who at least stock alcohol free Koppaberg, but as I’m anti-Brexit and their founder isn’t, it honestly pains me to support them.

The lack of selection for sober socialites is disappointing, especially as websites like Dry Drinker have a huge range of dry beers, wines and spirits. I don’t expect bars to stock every single thing offered there, but I don’t think it’s a big ask for them to have e.g. one alcohol free cider, one alcohol free beer and — at a push — an alcohol free spirit. Even better, a handful of mocktails (that aren’t just fruit juice) would make me as happy as a pig in shit.

There’s a ton of reasons for people to be sober (it’s not just for semi-crazy hormonal sorts like me) & I’m calling on UK bars and businesses to think of us as we approach the summer. Don’t make me drink lemonade all year, please.

My PMDD is Under Control

For the uninitiated and new readers amongst you, PMDD is an extreme version of PMS/PMT. It can cause cyclical feelings of anxiety, depression, anger and even suicidal thoughts, as well as the physical symptoms typically associated with the menstrual cycle.

It’s been over a year since I last talked about my PMDD. When I lost wrote, I confessed that I felt like I’d become consumed by this disorder – the one thing I’d hoped to avoid above all else. However, after a rocky year or so of trials and tribulations, I finally feel like I have my PMDD under control (for the most part). Since that blog post, I have tried:

Tracking and Not Tracking Cycles

I became worried that my compulsive tracking — counting ahead based on a typical cycle and shading in the calendar when I expected to be sad or angry — was putting me on edge. I worried that I was expecting to be angry, or sad, or paranoid on X day and thus causing a self-fulfilling prophecy. I stopped tracking altogether but then ended up waking up with anxiety, or full of rage, and being unable to figure out why which just made me feel crazy (until I remembered).

I seem to have found a happy medium whereby I track my cycle start time each month and extreme symptoms in an app, but don’t cross-reference or look ahead to see where I expect to be in my cycle. This gives me a point of reference but no doom-mongering.

Consistent, Varied Exercise

I’m usually active in one way or another but I have found that I have my best months when I am both consistent in my workouts and do more than one activity, e.g. lifting and running in the same month. Months where I’ve run the furthest I find my cycle the most bearable, but then I have always found my mental health directly correlates to the amount of cardio based exercise I do.

During February and early April when I was not able to do as much as I would like (half term and Easter holidays respectively) it didn’t take long for the activity gap to hit me.

Vitamin Supplementation

I read a guest post by Beckie Takacs via the Gia Allemand Foundation (PMDD charity) in October 2017 about the supposed benefits of potassium supplementation in the treatment of PMDD. The piece struck a cord, and given my history of hyperemesis during pregnancies and probably execessive alcohol use, it wasn’t that unlikely that I had a low-level potassium deficiency. However, I got in touch with the author of the post and although mostly common sense stuff, the detailed protocol she sent me made reference to the “potential health hazards of wireless devices and smart meters” which immediately put me off; I’ve no interest in tinfoil hat science.

Nevertheless, my sister started a lower dose potassium supplement schedule and mentioned some relief of some of her pre-menstrual symptoms, so I started taking 300mg (half Takacs’ recommended dose) on an every-other-day basis, as well as magnesium, which also reportedly improves PMS. (Magnesium is also recommended for runners and those taking part in regular exercise.) My temper and anxiety/paranoia symptoms have improved since starting supplementation.

Sobriety

Last, but definitely not least: I gave up alcohol again.

After my brother’s suicide last year put me in a downwards spiral with my drinking, despite my best efforts to “be chill about it“, it wasn’t long before the casual on-off drinking became multiple triple vodka shots on a Friday night “just because”. I hit rock bottom again in mid-December and crushed by the weight of my own mental health I knew I had two choices: give in to the paranoia and anxiety and voices that told me I was shit and stupid and useless and fat and unloveable and just throw myself off a building, OR stop being a whiny dick and make the sensible decision to stop drinking.

Obviously choice A was no choice at all, so giving up it was. Just like the first time I stopped, this had an almost immediate affect on my anxiety-related symptoms.

And so here I am. I am not miraculously cured of all ills, & I can’t be sure that this isn’t all some massive coincidence, but each subsequent step against this debilitating disorder has given me back a piece of myself and some semblance of control. That’s better than nothing.

Lead photo by Hoàng Duy Lê

Going Nuud

I happened to casually mention to my brother via facebook messenger recently that I get quite sweaty. (There is context, something about exercise, I didn’t just randomly tell him I’m sweaty as that would be weird.) Some short time afterwards I saw an ad’ for Nuud deodorant on facebook itself. Ignoring the slightly creepy-stalker aspect of this — let’s pretend it was a total coincidence — my curiosity was piqued.

Nuud is marketed as a “carefree” deodorant: harmless, sustainable and revolutionary. I didn’t care for the marketing BS, but I was genuinely interested in the claim that this little deodorant was both effective for several days and actively prevented odour. Any sweaty bird will tell you that despite the supposed long-lasting effects of all commercial deodorants, they generally coat you in a sticky gunk which mask smells for a few hours, but move so much as an inch and you’re on your own. I shower daily but am usually a hot mess fairly early on.

Now that I’ve filled you all with the mental image of me dripping with my own filth…

I ordered a tube of Nuud at a cost of over £11, which is quite possibly the most expensive deodorant I’ve ever bought by more than double, and it arrived a few days later. It was a hell of a lot smaller than I expected, but more about that in a sec. I didn’t hesitate to test it to the max straight away, with a double session of taekwon-do first up and then Ironbridge Half Marathon the following day.

Nuud is not like any other deodorant I’ve tried. It’s a silver-beige coloured paste that you squeeeeeeeze out a tiny pea-sized amount of and then apply directly to the armpits. It spreads easily and is not sticky or difficult to apply. However, with it being such a tiny tube, not only have I been incredibly precious about the amount I’m applying but on the one occasion I accidentally squeezed too hard I was distraught that I’d wasted a couple of days worth in one go. It’s not normal, and probably not healthy, to be upset over deodorant.

Nonetheless, application mishaps aside, I have been genuinely surprised at the effectiveness of the deodorant. Taekwon-do, a half marathon, various gym sessions and general day to day life have put it through its paces and it has significantly decreased odour, to the point where even after 13.1 miles on a clear warm day Gaz mentioned a “barely perceptible smell”. Sexy.

In addition to the rigorous exercise test, it didn’t seem to matter whether I had shaved or not, with the first week of my self-imposed two week trial sporting a full armpit… bush? (Is there an equivalent slang term for armpit hair? Anyway…) This is a massive improvement on the vast majority of roll on and sticks that I’ve tried previously which just seem to coat the hair and do sod all for the actual armpit. As someone with a very relaxed attitude to society’s idea of what’s “attractive” when it comes to the removal of body hair, this is a problem more often than not.

I’m not surprised, however, that it definitely isn’t effective for more than one day (despite the marketing claims to the contrary). There is absolutely no way I’d get 3-7 days out of it as advertised even if I spent those days in bed (sleeping, you perv). If I worked out my usual amount over the course of 7 days on one application of deodorant I’d be a walking bug repellent by the end of the week. I prefer a thorough wash each morning and re-application, but the cost implication of this with >£11 deodorant is clearly huge.

tl;dr nuud works. It’s effective against odour by tackling the bacteria rather than just coating your skin in goop. It’s not left any marks on any of my clothes and I feel better fresher for wearing it. However, it’s fucking expensive for what you get and I’m not sure I can financially justify it with the amount I go through.

Back to being a sweaty bird I guess.

Update 02nd August 2018: Despite my original concerns that the nuud deodorant was too expensive to regularly use, I managed to eventually fall into a routine with it. I now get about 3-4 days out of an application, which although is at the low end of their use case is pretty impressive for someone as sweaty as me. I’ve now been using nuud deodorant for nearly 6 months and wouldn’t replace it with anything else.

Nuud product shot taken from their website.

I do freelancing wrong (and I’m still successful)

Search for how to be a successful freelancer in your favourite search engine, and there’s no end to the list of tips and tricks people have. Some of them are useful and actionable, but most are generic; regurgitated from someone else’s “how to be a great freelancer” list. Always willing to buck the trend, I thought I’d tell you all of the things I don’t do as a freelancer (and still consider myself successful):

I never wrote a business plan

Business plans are supposed to be a roadmap for your ideas. Used properly they can help you lay out all the variables to help you build a business: examine the purpose of the business, research and analyse both your target market and the competition, assess the feasibility and future of your ideas and so on. I didn’t write one. Why?

  • I wasn’t looking for funding
  • I didn’t have a big idea that needed fleshing out, I just knew I wanted to code
  • My target market was “anyone who wanted a website”, which seemed too broad to detail
  • I wasn’t worried about the competition – web developers have been in high demand for as long as I can remember

Nearly 6 years on I’m finally getting to the point where I’m considering writing a plan for the future, but when I first started it was far more important to me to spend what little time I had a) working and b) getting the word out that I was available.

Professional business person working on their business plan. Maybe. Definitely not me. (Photo by Olu Eletu)

I quit my day job before testing the waters

A lot of people wiser than I am recommend launching your new business, or project, while at your existing job. My circumstances were complicated slightly by maternity leave, but I handed in my notice before I did anything else. Why?

  • I didn’t want the potential conflict of interest between my old job and my new freelance business
  • I knew that if everything went tits up, I had enough experience (and there was enough demand) that I wouldn’t have a problem getting a new job
  • I wanted to be able to dedicate 100% of my mental energy to my business (and a newborn baby!)

I did, however, have a small amount of savings which I could rely on for a few months if it took a while for work to pick up traction (and an incredibly frugal household budget).

I didn’t network (in person)

Well, OK, I did: I went to a few “mum business” networking meetings. However, I felt like they were a waste of my time. The other attendees were not likely to be able to afford my services (most being in the process of launching their own small businesses) or were unlikely to last long enough in business to need a website (harsh but true). I did, however, do these things:

  • I emailed a few old colleagues to let them know I was freelancing — this led to several early leads
  • I mentioned on social media that I was now freelancing — I won my first job via twitter

From there, word of mouth did the rest.

People networking. Or just having coffee? It’s basically the same thing. (Photo by Daria Shevtsova)

I didn’t sign up to freelancing sites

And, to be honest, I don’t know why people recommend them.

Freelancing sites like PeoplePerHour encourage what I consider to be a race to the bottom – that is, they encourage people to pitch lower and lower in the hope of winning a job. My time, my experience, my talent… it all has a value. By undermining that in an attempt to cut under other freelancers, I might as will stick a sign on my head saying “will work for scraps”.

Position yourself as able to service the end of the market that is going to pay your bills, and you will find work that pays your bills. Compromising on my rates has never turned out well for me.

I never created an “elevator pitch”

And to this day, if someone asks me what I do, my stock response is “I build websites”.

Turn the question around and listen: it’s far easier to win a client by listening to what their needs are than by talking about yourself. If you know what a potential customer needs, you can best figure out where you fit in to solve it. If they don’t have a problem that you can solve? Well, there’s no point pitching to them anyway.

This empty elevator / stairwell represents my lack of a decent pitch. It’s metaphorical, innit. (Photo by Andrew Welch)

I don’t blog (professionally)

After nearly 6 years in business my portfolio contains 9 blog posts and only one of those is what I would consider vaguely relevant or demonstrates that I know what I’m talking about. In my experience, clients are far more interested in demonstrations of actual working websites than whether or not I can write 600 words about something tech related. Unless you’re freelancing as a blog content creator, a blog isn’t the be all and end all.

And on that note… I also don’t maintain a professional social media presence. I tried, it was exhausting. I gave it up as a bad idea. In fact, I went one better and pushed my brand as laid back and all “me”: crazy cat lady, swears on the Internet and gives no shits. I’ve not lost a job for it yet. I think.

Despite all of these things I’m doing “wrong”, I still have the ability to turn down work that doesn’t fit or suit me. I have clients that I’ve been working with the entire duration of my freelance career. I very rarely have work droughts and when I do they don’t last long. This isn’t a brag: I’m not saying my way is the right way. On the contrary, I share my “failings” only to offer you encouragement that there is no right way to be a freelancer. It doesn’t have to be suits and plans and networking meetings.

The beauty of being a freelancer is that you can make it work for you, your way, and only you know how to do that.

Swap ‘n’ Change

After spending the past week or so having a regularly scheduled blog crisis, I spent most of last night hunched over my laptop (literally, my back is killing me this morning) poking and prodding at the keyboard, trying to come up with something new. I’ve felt for a while that my blog wasn’t accurately representing the content held within. OK, some of it is complete tosh and/or just personal ramblings, but there’s a lot of useful stuff spread over years and years of archives that is impossible to find.

It’s not visual, it’s not massively pretty or revolutionary in its design, but there are the following changes:

  • Lots of text — I’m playing to my strengths here. I’m never going to be one of these bloggers with tons of amazing photography. I can barely take a selfie that doesn’t make me look like my brain is leaking out of my ears.
  • No ads — now that I’m relatively financially stable again, I no longer need the ads to contribute to hosting costs etc. As nice as the extra few quid is, they made my blog load slowly & look messy. Some of my posts will still have e.g. affiliate links in, but that’s always been the case (and I usually remember to point them out)
  • Good content made prominent — I’ve made some of the stuff people are actually searching for easier to find with clear links from either the home page, or the main navigation.
  • Stripped out distractions — I’ve removed sidebars from single posts and pages to put the focus solely on content. This may bite me in the ass and reduce session length, and I may need to add e.g. related posts at the bottom of posts, but we’ll see.

It’s not done. (It’s never done.) There’s still stuff to do:

  • The search box needs re-adding
  • I need to do more testing of responsive versions
  • I need to add object-fit support for IE (or not, if I’m feeling mean ;) )

I also need to work on populating the new snippets section with e.g. useful bits that I use when developing websites, as well as more blog posts with KNOWLEDGE and WISDOM (or something). I have so much experience to share and I really feel like I should get back to my roots with tutorial writing & actually useful blog posts.

Anyway, let me know if you spot any bugs.