Guided Along the Way: My Journey with Girlguiding

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Today is World Thinking Day. Celebrated annually on 22 February, it is an international day of friendship for Girl Guides and Girl Scouts around the world to speak out on issues that affect girls and young women and fundraise for those members that are less fortunate. It dawned on me a while back that this year I will have been a member of this wonderful organisation for 21 years and so it is probably high time I shared with you my experience of being part of the guiding family.

My journey with Girlguiding began shortly after I started secondary school. I used to get the bus with a girl called Susan and we became friends. As you do when you’re getting to know someone we talked about what we liked to do outside of school and she told me all about how she was a Guide. I wasn’t very outdoorsy back then (I’m still not really), but she said they did loads of fun stuff apart from camping and I could go to a meeting with her if I wanted to. I decided to do just that and haven’t really looked back.

When I joined 1st Swanley Guides in 1996 I became part of the Swallow Patrol of which, if I remember correctly, Susan was the Patrol Leader at the time. In the first few weeks I really enjoyed getting my uniform and working through the Pre-Promises Challenges in my copy of The Guide Handbook. Back then Guides had eight different programme areas like The Senior Section still do and we had to complete a challenge from each area before making our Promise. We also had to learn the Guide Law and Promise.

I still remember my Promise Ceremony now. It was very traditional, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. We all marched into horseshoe and ten girls would be selected to go and light a candle while reciting one of the laws (it was changed to six laws while I was a Guide). Then my Patrol Leader escorted me to the opening of the horseshoe where Mandi (AKA Jay) our Leader would stand. She asked if I was ready to make my Promise as a Guide. I was. I really, really was. Once I recited my Promise, Mandi pinned my Promise badge on to my uniform and I made the Guide Sign to Mandi, the unit flag and the rest of the unit. I was then officially welcomed with a chorus of Oggy Oggy Oggy.

I loved every moment of being a Guide. I loved taking part in the Gala and Remembrance Parades and feeling honoured if I was asked to carry the flag. I loved taking part in our own version of The Generation Game as it meant Mum would also come to the meeting and join in the fun. I loved the water games nights that we would have at the end of the summer term. I loved working towards my Interpreter badge with my French tutor and my Chess badge with my uncle. Learning new things from people I already had good relationships with and who had a passion for those things.

When I working towards my GCSEs I decided to take a break from guiding to concentrate on the coursework, revision and mocks that I seemed to be constantly passed between like a ball. It didn’t last for long though. When I joined sixth form we were asked to take on a volunteering role. We could sign up and be allocated a role, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to become a Young Leader at my old unit.

Over the next two years I worked toward the Leadership Qualification. I had my first experience of attending a section training where I found out all about the new Guide programme which now had five programme areas and new resources called Go For Its! I started going to Division meetings and finding out about how guiding worked locally. I helped to plan the unit programme and outings to London. I loved being a Leader as much as I had being a Guide. For me being a Leader gives you that excuse to do all the fun stuff that you’re “too old” to do as an adult. And it’s perfect because if the girls see you’re having fun, they are likely to have fun too.

In September 2002 I went off to study Combined Languages at the University of Surrey. Knowing I was going to be going off on placement in my second and third years, I didn’t bother trying to find a unit to work with, but I kept in touch with 1st Swanley Guides and went to meeting whenever I was home for the holidays. In my third year I had a job as a receptionist at a Sports Centre. One day Lin, the bar manager, came down to see me and said she had noticed from my CV that I was a Guide Leader. It turns out that she was also a Guide Leader and wondered if I would like to help at her unit. Hell yeah! Unfortunately it wasn't long before I went off to work as a Language Assistant in a French school, but as soon as I was back in the UK I contacted her and asked if I could come and help. And so I became a Leader at 1st Send Guides for nearly a year.

I would say my last year at university is when I really got into guiding to be honest. A few of us got the old SSAGO (Student Scout and Guide Organisation) Society going again and I also started working towards my Queen’s Guide Award. Unfortunately it’s something I never completed, but I don’t regret trying because it led to so many wonderful opportunities. Because of the Queen’s Guide Award I attended a 4 Basic Training in Buckfastleigh and became a Peer Educator which then led to me joining the 4 Coordination and Support Team. I went to Innovate and attended association workshops where we discussed ideas for the future of Girlguiding and personal development workshops like self defence and sign language. I went camping for my first time ever to a week long international camp (NorJam) in Norfolk where I didn’t know anyone.

Doing all of these things helped my confidence and knowledge of Girlguiding to grow, so while I may not have gained my Queen’s Guide Award, it has definitely helped to shape the person that I am today and it definitely gave me the international bug.

In 2007 I went on my first international guiding trip to Croatia with Kent West County. Although I wasn’t brave enough to go scuba diving, I did go snorkelling and couldn’t believe how clear the water was. In 2009 our Division went to Paris for Capital Jig, a special event for the Girlguiding Centenary. My highlight of that trip was giving Mickey Mouse a special Centenary Promise badge when we were at Disneyland. In 2012 I went on another County trip, this time to Switzerland. We were short a Leader so I volunteered my mum knowing that she would love to go there to see where her granddad came from. I had a real mountain top moment when I received my 10 year long service award at the top of the Schilthorn. I went back to Switzerland two years later, this time on a Division trip. It really does feel like a home away from home. On my second trip we went up the Jungfrau and stood at the top of Europe. It was beautiful!

In 2010 I was selected to be a member of the team going on a GOLD (Guiding Overseas Linked with Development) project to Russia. In the summer of 2011 six of us spent three weeks working with members of the Russian Association of Girl Scouts. We trained them on predominantly on Leadership Development and PR and Recruitment, but they taught us so much too. The three weeks went by in a blur, but can you image my amazement when I heard the word NorJam in amongst all the Russian. I was on camp with Scouts that had been just a few pitches down from my unit when we went to NorJam the previous year. It really is a small world in guiding!

Through Girlguiding I have volunteered at the Philip Lawrence Awards and met Sir Trevor McDonald. I have volunteered backstage at Wembley Arena and chilled out with Sam and Mark and JLS. I visited a Guide unit when I went on holiday to Australia. I volunteered as an interpreter and translator at the Young Women’s World Forum where delegates attended from across the world. I attended the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall and wore my uniform and poppy with pride as I remembered my granddad and all his comrades.

In 2010 I turned 26 and ended my time in The Senior Section and started looking for a new challenge. Peer Education has become a big part of my life and I was encouraged on a number of occasions by various people to become a Trainer so I started working towards my qualification. When I was at school the thought of taking assembly filled me with dread, but put me in front of a room of Leaders and I will gush about guiding for however long you give me. The feeling I get when I receive feedback that they feel more confident or can’t wait to try new ideas with their girls is better than being given the biggest bar of Galaxy and being told you won’t put on weight if you eat it all! I especially love residential trainings. They are exhausting, but seeing the change in participants as the weekend progresses is so rewarding.

Towards the end of last year I made the decision to leave my Ranger unit and start helping out at a Rainbow unit much closer to home. It also happens to be run by my old Guide Leader and one of my old Guides who, like me, got the guiding bug big time! Also on the team is another Leader and a Young Leader (who also happens to be one of my old Guides). Having such a strong Leadership team is great because if one of us can't make it (usually me if I'm off training) then there are enough of us to keep things going.

At the beginning of this year I took on a couple of roles in my old Division which can be done mainly from a distance. The first is Young Leader Adviser which I am enjoying as it means I get to keep in touch with some of my old Rangers. My first event for them is coming up in a couple of weeks and I'm really looking forward to working with them. The second is Division Mentor. I find this links really well with training as it's supporting Leaders while they work on their Leadership Qualification. I'm pleased to have found roles that really utilise my skills and help me keep in touch with my old area.

Even with everything that I have done in guiding, I think being a Leader and Trainer will always be my favourite. I have seen so many of my Guides grow into beautiful, strong, empowered women. I felt so old when I found out that one of my former Guides was going to become a mummy. I guess it can be likened to how a mum must feel as her children grow up. They will always be your Guides (or Rainbows or Brownies) and you will worry about them and celebrate with them during different times in their lives, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are so proud of who they become as adults especially when they too become Leaders and work alongside you to inspire the next generation of the guiding family.

When I look back at what guiding has done for me over the last 20 years it makes me excited for the next 20. I think about everything that has changed and all the girls that have come and gone. What changes are on the horizon and who will I encounter along the way?

A Girl's Best Friend

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I know what you're thinking. Diamonds are a girl's best friend, right? Not in my eyes. No, the title of this post is a reworking of the well-known phrase "man's best friend". Recently I have become borderline obsessed about getting a dog. The fact that I am living with my mum, who doesn't want one, just makes me want one even more because, of course, you always want what you can't have.

The first and only dog I've ever had was a dopey Cocker Spaniel called Ben. He was in a litter that my uncle's dog, Heidi, had in November 1990. I had been on at my mum to get a dog since we'd lost our cat Katy. Probably before then to be honest, but it was only when we found out that Heidi was expecting that she finally caved.
I still remember going to pick him up from my uncle's house in Norfolk in the January close to my mum's birthday. I was six years old and so excited! As mum was driving, I was in charge of looking after the new member of our family on the journey home. He was so tiny so I sat him carefully on my lap all wrapped up in a blanket like a baby. Then when we got home I carried the little bundle in, holding him close to me.
You've seen Lady and the Tramp? In case you haven't I'll explain that it is about a couple who, coincidentally, get a puppy Cocker Spaniel. They leave her to sleep, swaddled in blankets, in a box downstairs. To cut a long story short, it didn't work for them and it didn't work for us either. Just like the film, Ben howled and howled. For us it wasn't about feeling that we were being cruel leaving him alone. We knew if we'd given it a chance he would have gotten used to it. No, it was the worry that he would disturb our neighbours. For this reason he very quickly got his own way and was allowed into my mum's room to sleep.

I have so many lovely memories of Ben in the years we had him. When he was still quite small, he learned to climb the stairs. While he quickly became quite adept at getting up, coming back down was an entirely different matter so I would have to go and shuffle down the stairs on my bum with him on my lap. Also while he was still a pup, he was quite content to use Katy's old cat flap to go out to the garden. It suited us as we didn't have to keep opening and closing the door. Until one day the came through the cat flap and took it with him. 
We quickly realised that he was a bit of an oddball. Male dogs cock their legs up a tree to relieve themselves, correct? Not Ben! No, he decided that it was easier to lean against the tree and cock his leg in the air. You've got to admit there's some logic to that! Then there was the time that I went to investigate where he was when he had become suspiciously quiet one day. I found him looking rather sheepish with the lid of my little plastic swing bin stuck on his head. I had to stop laughing before I could remove it.
Then there was his apparent immunity to chocolate. Don't get me wrong. We didn't go around willingly giving him chocolate. We know it's extremely dangerous for doggies. However, before Ben's arrival, we'd always had chocolate decorations hanging on our Christmas tree. The first year that we had him we didn't think anything of it and decorated the tree as normal. In the following days we kept finding bits of tin foil all over the floor and couldn't figure out where it had come from. Until, that is, I went to get a chocolate off the tree and couldn't find them. When we weren't around he had been climbing up and carefully removing them. The tree stayed intact and we wouldn't have been any the wiser.
Another year we had been given a box of chocolate biscuits. Knowing what he was like, we put them right to the back of the kitchen counter and went out leaving him to do whatever he did when we went out. When we came back there was tin foil and ripped up cardboard everywhere. He had eaten all the biscuits. Every. Single. One. I don't know how he wasn't seriously ill!
He liked to be in our company as much as possible. Mum would take him to work with her and in every workshop there would be a box for him so that he could make himself comfortable wherever she went. In fact he was so determined to be near her that when something shorted out underground and he got a shock every time he walked through the doorway of one workshop, he would walk the long way round to use another entrance. It was only by him doing this that she realised there was a problem and reported it. He was an absolute darling when I was ill too as he would come and lie on the bed to keep me company. And that wasn't something he usually did. Mum was his favourite. She gave him treats. I didn't. Meanie! 
In the later years he became deaf. At first we thought he just had selective hearing, but then we noticed he wouldn't go as far at the park. He wanted to have us in sight as he couldn't hear us calling him. We also caught him out one day. He was always allowed on the living room furniture, but the sofa bed in the dining room was out of bounds. We had our suspicions that he would go on it when we were out and one day we came home to find him fast asleep on it. We think that he did it all the time, but on this occasion the combination of deafness and old age meant he didn't hear us come back. As soon as he woke up and saw us, he was off it in a shot.

Not long before we lost him I was back for a weekend for Paris. He got up on the sofa and snuggled up next to me. It's like he knew what was coming and wanted to say goodbye. It broke my heart, but I'm grateful for the memory. I don't know how I would've coped if I'd been home when his time came. 
It's been more than ten years since Ben crossed the Rainbow Bridge. I don't know what's changed recently to make me want another so much, but I keep picturing a faithful friend in my life. Waking up with him curled up on the bed next to me, getting up and taking him for a nice long walk whatever the weather. I even half-joked about us getting an office dog at work to relieve stress. I can see him curled up underneath my desk, keeping my feet warm and taking him for a walk in my lunch break. 

I know that it's not practical at the moment and it would scupper my holidays abroad as I could never put a dog in kennels, but I am surprised by how strong this longing for a furbaby is. One day I will have another and he will be my squishy, but for now I'll have to settle with looking at photos of my cousin's dog and watching cute videos on YouTube.

Dementors and Boggarts

Today is Time to Change's fourth Time to Talk Day. Held on the first Thursday of February each year, Time to Talk Day encourages the nation to get talking about mental health and keep the conversation going round the clock. Today I want to talk about my experience in the only way that I know how.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a serious, unwavering love for Harry Potter. I couldn't tell you how many times I've read the books or seen the films, I am proud to say that I was sorted into Slytherin on Pottermore and I went to a fancy dress party as Hermione (before I found out I was a Slytherin obvs.) I even want to get my Pottermore wand made for real.

It's safe to say that Harry Potter has a special place in my heart and this magical series has got me through some tough times by being a source of comfort when needed. J. K. Rowling has famously spoken about the fact that she based the terrifying, soul-sucking Dementors on her own fight with depression. The creepy, wraith-like creatures drain the hope and happiness out of anyone that comes into contact with them leaving them with nothing but the worst experiences of their life. They even have the ability to suck your soul out completely leaving you trapped in a fate worse than death. 

It seems to me that if Dementors represent depression, then Boggarts could be seen as an appropriate analogy for anxiety. Whenever I watch or read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban I try to imagine what would have come out of the cupboard towards me in Professor Lupin's class. Would it have been a giant spider or wasp? Would it be the cows from the Cravendale adverts? (They freaked me out more than the cats with thumbs.) Or would it have been another nationwide bourbon shortage? It might take me a little while, but I'm pretty sure I could find a way to make those things funny and perform the Riddikulus charm. 

But what if none of those came out of the cupboard. What if instead I saw my oldest friends turning against me? What if I saw myself being fired? What if I was faced with an older, childless version of me? What if, like Molly Weasley, I saw members of my family lying dead in front of me? How do you make thoughts like those funny? Those are the kind of irrational thoughts that anxiety plants in your mind. Then a voice that sounds very much like your own keeps repeating them over and over again until you believe they'll come true.

Now imagine you're trying to fight of a Dementor and Boggart at the same time. The Dementor is silently gliding towards you and you raise your wand as you try to think of your happiest memory, a strong memory, but all you can think about is the impressively realistic show that the Boggart is putting on for you. As the Dementor gets closer you feel that eerie chill fill you like ice and you are frozen to the spot. That’s teamwork, that is! And that’s why many people often experience depression and anxiety together. They gang up on you so you feel like you don’t have the strength to fight either.

I have always joked that if I were a witch, it would be highly likely that my Patronus would be either a sloth or a koala; incredibly cute, but no help whatsoever if it came down to protecting my soul from being sucked from my body. What I really need is a Patronus like a unicorn so that it could stab those nasty Dementors with its horn. Try as I might though waving around my hand-carved wand that I found at a festival and shouting “Expecto Patronum” does not work. No unicorn. Not even a sloth. And I'd take a sloth right now.

You see, last year I found myself back on medication for anxiety and depression; the third time in less than five years. When you recover from a bout of anxiety and depression (they tend to visit me together) you have the very best intentions that you will never let it happen to you again. After all you can recognise the signs now so you can be proactive if you start to see them resurface. Unfortunately it doesn't always work that way. 

This time around I fought and fought against it. I threw myself into my work which was a great distraction to start with, but as time went on I realised I was doing my old trick of saying I was fine when I very clearly wasn't. I'd go into work early so I could cry without anyone knowing. I had to let it out because holding it in was giving me the worst headaches imaginable. Then it got to a point where I just couldn't hold it in no matter how much I tried. 

I didn't feel that way all the time and in some ways that was worse because I'd have a good day, sometimes an amazing one, so when the next run of bad days came I'd feel even worse. Think one step forward and two steps back. By the time I accepted that I needed help again, I felt like I'd gone so far backwards that even the starting line was difficult to see.

I've been back on my medication for a while now and 99% of the time I feel great. I have the odd day where I feel like utter crap, but everyone does. It's normal. Even though it is prescribed for both anxiety and depression, I feel like the medication is working as a Patronus keeping the Dementors at bay, allowing me to tell the Boggarts where to shove it!

I also made some lifestyle changes which I truly believe have helped. Starting Slimming World last summer was a big one. Not only because I was down about my weight more than I was letting on, but also because I am eating better and that means I have heaps more energy. I also made a conscious effort to stop doing things that were causing me stress or I just wasn't enjoying as much anymore. I now have a completely full diary again, but it's with new classes, roles and ventures that bring out my creative side and allow me to nurture it. I smile every day. Even if it's been a bad day, I smile as I get into bed knowing that tomorrow is a new day. 

I want to start reducing my dosage in the not too distant future. It won't happen overnight and I've accepted that I may experience a relapse, but I will never stop fighting the Dementors and Boggarts that come and visit me from time to time. They are a part of me now just like Harry Potter and his wonderfully magical world are.

January Favourites

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It's the first Wednesday of the month so I guess you know what that means. Here are my January favourites.

Fitbit Metal Bracelet
I love my Fitbit. I wear it every day and every night. I only take it off when I shower or to charge it. I even wore it to my friends' wedding even though it didn't really go with my outfit because I knew I'd be dancing lots. Then I saw that Fitbit were bringing out a range of accessories for the Alta and so I asked for the Stainless Steel Metal Bracelet for Christmas. It was on back order so I didn't get it until a week or so into the New Year. Although I wouldn't wear it every day, it is perfect for those special occasions when you want to look smart, but still keep track of your steps.
You do not know how long I have wanted one of these. I've used my Sweaty Betty sports bottle for a few years now, but I love this as it has the times marked out and reminds me to drink regularly. I've heard some people say they don't see the point in it, but for someone who forgets to drink, particularly when I'm at work, it's a godsend. Since I got it, I've had at least 1.8l of water a day, usually more with my morning herbal tea. And it's pink! What more could you possibly want?!
Probably the most expensive thing I will buy this year. My MacBook Pro had been running slower and slower for quite some time so I got a quote from Apple Renew and they said they'd give me £176 for it. I decided to trade it in and instead of getting a new laptop, I'd use my iPad Pro when I'm out and about and get an iMac so that I have to sit at my desk to work. Less distractions and better posture. The screen is a much better size for working too and that's just the 21.5" one. The 27" was too big for my desk. Oh, and extra bonus! The Magic Keyboard comes with it as standard, but I wanted the old corded one as that comes with a numeric keypad so they knocked another £50 off. I have also discovered the pros and cons of being able to have Netflix on while I am working.
When I chose my word for the year, I decided I wanted something that would act as a constant reminder of it for those days when I waver. I am in a few small business groups on Facebook and discovered Sarah Palmer and her lovely little biz The Trinket Box. I'd previously purchased a couple of her planner charms and loved them so I went back and asked her if she could do a custom necklace for me. This was the result. I've worn it nearly every day since getting it and I wouldn't be without it now.
Pot of Dreams
I've wanted a Pot of Dreams for ages, but I was being really fussy about what one I wanted. Whenever I went into Clintons, I couldn't see one that I really, really liked so I didn't bother getting one. Then in the New Year I popped to a local shopping centre and saw this Tinkerbell one. Tinkerbell has always been one of my favourite Disney characters and the fact it was pink and fits the decor of my room left me with no choice but to buy it. I read that if you only put £2 coins in it, then by the time it is full, you will have saved around £1,000. So that's what I'm doing. Whenever I get a £2 in my change, I put it in a different part of my purse until I get home so it doesn't get spent.
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