THE GOOD THAT COMES FROM GIVING THINGS UP

I am an expert at giving things up. I’m a professional quitter, if you like. I’ve given so much up over the last few years, to be honest, I’m surprised I have any bad habits left.

And so, since today is the 1st October, affectionately labelled as ‘Stoptober’ by an NHS desperate for us to adopt better habits (AKA please may you stop making it quite so easy for lung cancer to get ya with all these bloody cigarettes), I thought it’d be a good time to chat about the good that comes from quitting.

Because, like I say, I’m a bit of an expert when it comes to giving stuff up.

In 2014, after months of illness, I was diagnosed with allergies to both gluten and dairy; I gave the two things up very quickly and instantly felt a million times better. The dairy was actually causing asthma attacks so I don’t exaggerate when I say that these changes totally changed my life.

I never wanted to go back to feeling like I did before and so they were fairly easy to quit – the choice was simple: if you eat gluten you’ve got three days of cramps and not being able to wear your jeans, if you eat dairy your face will swell up and you won’t breathe properly but by all means Em, you do you. 

To massively oversimplify, I suffer with IBS and I’ve written about this before if you want to read more about that.
“Let’s talk about IBS”
“Dealing day-to-day with IBS”
“Going on holiday when you have IBS” 

In 2016 my stomach got worse, I had months of trial and error with diet and lifestyle changes, of seeing different specialists and of feeling really sick. In the end I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and part of that treatment included giving up *drumroll please* caffeine, alcohol and sugar ALL AT ONCE.

Since I was actually feeling ill, both mentally and physically at the time, I didn’t document ALL OF IT but I did write a bit about the illness and giving up the love of my life (no, not booze – that’s a close second): coffee.
“The stomach condition depriving me of all that I love”
“Giving up caffeine: the good, the bad and the really bloody ugly.”

And then in 2018 I GAVE UP SMOKING!!! By far and away my biggest achievement as, after quitting basically everything else, I always said smoking was my last vice and you can be damn sure I’ll hold onto it for dear life. Of course I wrote about it:
“Giving up smoking: two months on”.

So yes, to cut a long story a little bit short, I’ve given up a lot in my life so far.

Right now I don’t eat gluten and dairy, nor do I eat nuts and seeds, I adore caffeine and inhale coffee as if my life depends on it, I don’t smoke unless I get really drunk and then I have a drag or two (but I very much am not addicted anymore and have decided to stop doing that this month), and have been, for the most part, maintaining a healthy relationship with sugar and alcohol so as to keep my stomach onside and the party loving, haribo obsessed side of me happy enough too.

Although I don’t like the idea of quitting (no one likes a quitter, remember), sometimes lifestyle changes have to be made and giving things up just has to be done.

I’ve been forced to give a lot up, but I’ve also dabbled with a bit of recreational quitting and that’s worthy of a chat at least…

I used to very much abide by the idea that giving things up was negative and we should instead look to taking things up; come January 1st I’d reason that I liked smoking, and I didn’t want to start the new year as a quitter so instead I’d vow to start something new: meal prepping, making my bed every morning, beginning meditation, running, cycling, replying to texts right away, exfoliating, etc.

Of course I never explored the negative impact that starting all these new things only to find that by January 12th I couldn’t persevere with them and would then have to then give up on them anyway had, but that’s by the by.

I thought giving things up was defeatist somehow, that I was going to exhaust myself in a way that would somehow make my life less happy.  So I always said I wouldn’t do it, and I never did.

That was a good excuse, but the reality was, of course, that I just couldn’t be bothered to give stuff up. I was lazy and if I was doing something that required me to actively make the effort stop, then it probably wasn’t good for me and brought me joy, or comfort at least.

Anything for an easy life.

It was easier to smoke and to eat what I wanted and drink than it was to quit.

It wasn’t until I found myself out of breath every time I went up the stairs, beginning to despise the waistline that was growing with every passing season, dealing with crippling anxiety the day after a heavy night of drinking that I realised that whilst giving up may be a ‘negative’, it surely couldn’t be worse than the disadvantageous environment I was creating for myself.

I’d heard enough times that giving up was ‘bad’, I listened, enthusiastically as internet life coaches and Instagrammers desperate for likes would energetically and optimistically tell me not to give things up because it wasn’t positive and that instead I should take up new hobbies! begin crafting! start a puzzle! try your hand as a vegan! 

Okay! I’d think, what a great idea!! I don’t need to stop drinking, drinking is fun, I think I’d be way better off walking rather than getting the bus and going to that candle-making-workshop I’ve been thinking about for a while. 

I’d tell myself that life was too short for boring things like giving up smoking or having to drink elderflower cordial as all my pals sink tequila because it’s a week day and not everyone needs to drink on a Tuesday…

In truth, what I didn’t want to do was confront how bad my hobbies had become, or how difficult they would be to stop. Not even because I was addicted to any of them, but because to change your lifestyle is to have to really look at it. And who can be arsed with that?

I am also British, and we have a culture that encourages drinking, in particular, with dangerous enthusiasm. When I finally did have to quit the booze for health reasons back in October 2016 I was met with cries of ‘booooo, boringgggg’ from basically everyone I knew, even those who’d watch me struggle to fight an invisible illness for however long.

We’re not good at dealing with others giving things up. If I were to be cynical I might suggest that this is because watching others do what we wish we could is hard, so rather than confront these things in ourselves, we try to bring others down… take that one or leave it, I suit cynical rather more than I care to admit.

As well as being British, I am a woman. A woman living in an age that encourages us to love ourselves first and foremost. To then admit to the world, and to ourselves, that we are unhappy with our bodies, unhappy enough that we are going to actively make a change; whether that’s cutting out carbs in the evening or banishing chocolate for lent, we are met with a similar reaction: you’re perfect as you are, you don’t need to lose any weight, go on, don’t be daft, have a biscuit (insert earlier’s cynicism).

Giving things up when I was forced to was not positive and it was not enjoyable. Although it made me feel physically better, it always felt like a prescription and, because I’m very dramatic and a martyr when I want to be, I spent an awful lot of time complaining about how unfair it was that I was blighted with this condition.

Giving things up when I’ve wanted to though, has been an entirely different experience, and one that I have been pleasantly surprised by.

By always assuming that it was too hard to give things up, that I would fail, that it would require too much effort, I was stigmatising something that probably would have helped my happiness and my mental health in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

So much as to say, you don’t have to give things up, always, because you’re a bad person doing a bad thing. Sometimes, you can give something up because you’re a good person doing a thing that isn’t totally great that you want to stop so that you can be even better.

I vowed, in March last year, that I was done with doctors and with giving things up and with controlling my diet so stringently. For my mental health, at the beginning, this was the best thing I could have done… after six really hard months I had my life back.

18 months later and I am forced to concede that whilst originally this was a good decision, my body does not agree and as a result, nor does my mind. Feeling ill all the time is exhausting.

So whilst I’m not quite giving up everything like I did before I am about to embark on some big lifestyle changes that won’t just include ‘taking things up’ (like the yoga I’ve been neglecting and cooking healthy recipes rather than just snacking on crisps all the time), it will also include giving things up.

And for the first time, I’m excited about it.

Because when I gave up smoking, at the time it was horrible, but looking back now it was one of the greatest things I ever did, for how I feel now. I don’t mean to be a pious ex-smoker, I hate pious ex-smokers, but I feel lighter and I smell better, and as someone who is obsessed with smell, this has changed my life in ways you could never understand.

Mentally too, to know I’ve overcome an addiction I didn’t think I would feels great. So to does the fact that in making that decision I became healthier, and it’s hard not to feel happy (and smug) when you’re healthy.

There’s a lot to be said for changing the way you view lifestyle changes.

Giving things up has for a long time been considered as something bad, negative and draining, but in so many instances, whether it’s smoking, eating junk food, working from bed, being in a toxic friendship or relationship, giving up on something is to signify the taking back of a bit of control in your life.

If you can view what you are doing as something positive, it will not only be easier to achieve but ultimately it will see you create a life you’re proud of…

Quitting something you don’t think you should be doing anymore is not just a chore, or something that has to be done, it can be, if you’d like, a way of making room for good in your life, for seizing back power and starting something new.

If you want to follow the STOPTOBER campaign on Twitter, just click here… and good luck.

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