It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

It was my birthday last week. I wasn’t in a good place. I had had one of those months where my hormones play havoc with my state of mind, but it dragged on longer than usual.

A long haired person leans to blow out candles on a cake held by someone in a shirt
Photo by Sergei Solo on Unsplash

I found myself lying there debating if I was depressed. I mean, yes. I was feeling depressed, sad, low. But was this just a blip, albeit a longer one than usual, or was this a return of my old foe. Or – was it a perfectly reasonable reaction to *waves arms frantically at everything* I mean, the world is on fire. The weather was miserable – August – torrential rain, great. And where I live we are always on edge with the threat of floods. The pandemic trundles on an has amplified horrific ideological divisions. Racism, homophobia, transphobia all seem to be becoming much more openly expressed. It bothers and frightens me. My physical health is wobbly. I’m tired and achy and worried.

So is it understandable to feel rubbish? Of course it is. It may well be a perfectly natural human response to difficult times and challenges. But it’s not nice. Nor is it helpful. In that state I am not enjoying life but I am also robbed of any ability to do anything to change all of those circumstances which I am well within my rights to be distressed about.

So I ask myself, was I depressed?

Low mood ✔
Tiredness / lack of energy ✔
Loss of interest in things I would usually enjoy ✔

Check, check, check.

I kept trying to think of something to do for my birthday. It felt like such a chore. I knew my husband wanted to do something nice for me but I couldn’t think of anything that felt worth doing. That wasn’t also attached to feelings of anxiety or guilt.

Add to that increasing thoughts of death, urges to hurt myself, lack of appetite but comfort eating, aches and pains, lack of confidence, inability to make decisions, concentrate, etc, etc.

Birthdays are hard too. The pressure of them. The reminder that things have changed. Once upon a time I was the queen of birthdays – I loved them and gathered my friends around me for lengthy celebrations. Now they are a reminder of how friendships drift as we age and our lives change, and also, sadly, a time when the absence of those no longer with us is much more keenly felt.

This blip was longer than most. Usually I have a few days feeling like this before my period, and it quickly disipates. As I near menopause I am keeping an eye on how my mood changes. For whatever reason this lasted longer. I got to the point of considering going back to the doctor. Though I’m not sure what I would ask them – given my history with anti-depressants. Instead I thought to myself – am I practicing what I preach? Have I let my good habits slide? Probably.

Luckily – the days after my birthday brought a return to clearer mind – the clouds rolled back a little both metaphorically and literally. But I’m not complacent. My recovery, is one of constant vigilence. Because my depression is like a weed, those thoughts take hold and grow and get into every crack. But luckily I know how to spot the first shoots, and rip them up at the roots.

Come and learn how to spot signs and symptoms of mental ill health in yourself and others – and how to support people through difficult times – places available on my Online Mental Health First Aid Courses – contact me if you are eligible for a discount.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/sarah-long-14624952023

Recovery – Uncovering – Discovery

What is recovery? What does it mean to recover? It depends what we are recovering from of course. And what we are trying to recover. People who are seeking to break free from addiction often talk about being “in recovery”. It’s not a destination, it’s a journey. Is it possible to say one is no longer an alcoholic? Perhaps – but more often people, however far along their journey they are, maybe prefer to acknowledge that it is something that takes work, that may present challenges, sometimes be hard, sometimes easier.

Recovering from illness can take different paths too. Sometimes that path will take us from the depth of sickness or injury, to 100% fitness. I’m sure you’ve had illnesses, colds, stomach bugs, even something worse – where you have felt utterly awful, bed bound, weak, emitting substances from all manner of places, and then a couple of weeks later been back to your usual self, hale and hearty. Some wounds heal without trace. But others don’t. Some scar.

Some injuries or illnesses leave lasting traces. Maybe we’re not as strong as we once were. Maybe we don’t have the flexibility, strength – maybe our lung capacity isn’t as good. Maybe we ache more than we used to do. Maybe there are things we can’t, or shouldn’t do anymore. Maybe some of these things we can work on – with physiotherapy, exercise, medications. But sometimes we can’t. It just is what it is. Some illnesses are chronic – ongoing. They may have fluctuating impact on our wellbeing. We don’t always recover. Sometimes that isn’t an option, given our current medical knowledge and technology.

So what about mental illness? The story is the same. There is no one shared experience of “mental illness”. Each of us has our own symptoms, experiences, diagnoses. And we each have our own recovery. Some of us, may find some treatment or path which takes us to the other side of our illness and find ourselves free of any symptom, able to embrace our lives once more with gusto. But for many more of us it is not that simple.

Recovery is a journey. One where there are many possible routes. Maybe some of them turn out to be dead ends – maybe we’re going along great, and then the path gets rocky and we have to find a diversion. Some of those paths might be uphill, with many challenges, rivers to cross. It can be hard work. But sometimes the view along the way is interesting too.

My recovery is ongoing. My journey has been long, and I don’t consider it over. But I have certainly come far. And this journey of recovery has taught me many things.

I suppose we don’t necessarily need to recognise we are unwell, before we recover. Sometimes we might suddenly reflect and realise that we are in a better place than we once were, and be thankful for it, whether it was our actions, or chance, which brought us there. But I knew I wasn’t well. I recognised in my teens that I had issues with depression, mood swings, self harm, suicidal ideation, – I saw something in myself that I didn’t see in others. (It may have been there but after all we didn’t talk about things like that then). I saw myself as broken, a depressive. That was just how I was, no way out of it. In later years I met kindred spirits, drowned it with alcohol, and leaned in to the nihilistic hedonism. I experienced wild flights of fancy and what I recognised later as hypomania. It took a while before I realised there was a pattern to it all. Eventually, with the help of a job in health, and some celebrities starting to talk about their own experiences, I figured maybe I had this bipolar thing people were talking about. It made a lot of sense out of things that never had. But it was still pretty vague, and not an official diagnosis. So I started to learn. And learning started my journey.

I went to the doctors several times over the years. First time at university, once fobbed off, another time dragged by friends – mid finals, mid breakdown – which led to an abortive counselling stint. Five or six years later I tried again, and had some fund and games with medication, discovering my love of side effects and that I responded slightly better to SNRIs than SSRIs but that neither made me “better” mentally, and both made me physically a wreck. So I came off them. And gradually got worse, so ended up trying again five more years later. Briefly. And then more counselling – stress classes, CBT, guided self help – my most recent batch in 2017. Maybe at some time I will need more.

All of this – so why do I not considered myself “recovered”? Surely if I don’t then none of the above can have worked? And yet, if I compare myself at my worst – at the mercy of suicidal lows or life destroying highs, self harming, obsessed with but terrified of death, riddled with health anxiety, hording, purging, finding every day a torment. I am better. So very much better than I was. At some point, depression stopped being a near constant. I let go of my horror at mortality, I no longer felt the need for some of my more troublesome coping mechanisms. I do still live with anxiety, which can sometimes be very problematic, and issues with self esteem and confidence which hold me back in my working life. And I do still, occasionally experience some nasty lows, sometimes very nasty – which I now know to be associated with stages in my hormonal cycles. So I’m not “recovered”. I still have issues relating to my mental health which interfere with my life, my ability to do the things I need to do, and my enjoyment of existence and relationships. I’m working on it.

What has helped me into this better place, is manifold. The things I mentioned above, the medication, the therapy. They were not without merit. The meds don’t work great for me but I know it might help me through a particularly dark patch if one returns. I’ve also learnt more since then about other supplements that help me chemically too – that boost dopamine, which seems to be more helpful for me than the serotonin/adrenaline routes. The techniques I learnt at the counselling sessions – like exercises learnt at physio – things I try to bring into practice as often as I remember to avoid old habits that don’t serve me. And I’ve learnt more about therapeutic approaches myself. Studying counselling helped me to understand myself more. Understand where all of this came from (maybe). Uncovering my past, revisiting it. Realising the patterns, their impact.
I had long known I went through some difficult circumstances – not the worst they could have been, but certainly not the best. Realising the ways I had been let down, or not had the emotional support any of us deserve, helped me to understand why I felt so vulnerable, aggrieved, never believing I was loved, always expecting betrayal, self-sabotaging and creating self fulfilling prophecies of doom. I was able to be gentle with myself, compassionate, merciful. Further along however, I also began to own some of the damage I must have done myself, and see the traumas which led the people who had harmed me to make the choices they had made. To see this endless interaction of trauma, us each colliding with each other like waves, building and building until we come crashing down somewhere. It makes me feel infinite compassion for this whole world of suffering.

Somewhere along the way, relatively recently, I was led to learn more about autism and ADHD, and realised that this may also have had a lot to do with “why I am the way I am”. Reflections stretching back to before my depression emerged, to a childhood feeling odd, and different, and trying to play a role to fit in with a world which made little sense to me. Now I see how I have sought out my tribe, understand why I can hear electricity when no one else can, and why a crowded bar or shopping centre is my version of hell. It doesn’t stop me getting anxious, or make interaction any easier, but I understand an accept myself now. I don’t have a diagnosis, but then I don’t have official diagnoses for a lot of the things I might qualify for – it’s not so easy to access them. And at the end of the day they are simply labels on a bunch of symptoms or experiences. Maybe I would “pass” or maybe not. Maybe the diagnosis would be more trouble than it is worth. If learning about these things, neurodiversity, trauma, whatever – help me to understand myself, and in understanding find a new road to my recovery, or key to my past – then that is enough for me.

Recognising and moving on from the past, I allowed myself to consider a future. I made material changes in my life. For all that the past was heavily involved in my illness, the present contributed too – painful journeys needed to happen to end an unhappy relationship, find a place to live that brought me joy, not sadness, break free of a job which was destructive, lessen debt, improve family relationships. Not all of these journeys are over, some of them are still sources of great sorrow. But it must be recognised that recovery in mental illness is often reliant not just on our ability to access treatment, or practice self care, but also overcoming material circumstances which add to our distress. Sometimes we are able to influence these things, sometimes we are not.

We do what we can. And so another part of my recovery is pro-active. Try to eat better, not drink as much, take supplements, build new friendships, enjoy nature, take simple pleasures, channel my energies into creating, painting, writing. Exercise more. Sleep. Learn. Help people.

When I am having a bad day, anxieties high, panic attacks – I try to lean into it a little. Explore it – find out what it is which is provoking that anxiety, because that teaches me what I still need to work on, to think about, to find a way through. Sometimes I find it is something I have worked on before, and I realise I have to try and practice some more. Sometimes it is a new revelation, another stage of the journey, and I am grateful for everything it is teaching me. Because in going through all of this, I learn more about myself, and the things which are important to me, and what I want out of this life. What do I want to recover? I don’t necessarily want to go back to the high stress, high responsibility job. I don’t value status. I want to be fitter, so I can live longer and also be able to get about more and enjoy this world we live in for whatever time I do have, even this square mile around me. I don’t need to be famous, or everybody’s friend. I want to sleep soundly and be at peace. I would like to be more confident, and able to reach more people, help more people. Maybe I will get there.

The greatest lesson in all of this for me was to keep learning, and keep moving. You are the greatest resource you have. Recovery for you may involve the care of others, medication, therapists, hospital. But that is not always the case. And it is certainly not usually the only thing that will help. Keep trying new things, learning new approaches, keep talking.

Sometimes, in the depth of chaos and despair it can feel hard to believe things can get better. Or even that we deserve for them to do so. But if you can’t feel that hope, that belief – then let me feel it for you. Let me hold it until you are ready for it. Let those around you help you. You just focus on one breath at a time. And then one step at a time. And before you know it you will be well on your way.

New Date – 28th July – Mental Health Aware

I’ve had the opportunity to set up an additional / alternative date for the half day Mental Health Aware course in July – so if Wednesday morning works for you, now’s the time to book. If you’re quick you’ll catch the Early Bird discounts!

55 ways to boost wellbeing with nature

I’m sure I’ve said somewhere before that I struggle with Mental Health Awareness Weeks and Days. Not because I disagree with them, like some (who have a valid point that for those with enduring mental illness, or who are struggling to access the services they need, awareness is hardly the problem at hand.) – I really do think we still need to be raising awareness for all sorts of reasons, not least, challenging the stigma that stops many from feeling able to tell their friends or family members that they are struggling, let alone ask for help.

No, my difficulty falls a little into the Pathological Demand Avoidance category – even if I really want to do something, as soon as someone else asks me to do it, or there is some wider expectation, I find it almost impossible to carry on.

Maybe it is the increased attention or importance associated with the act when that expectation is attached to it – and hence anxiety that I will say the wrong thing, or not enough, or too much.

Anyway. Plenty of others stepped into the breach for me, and I tried to retweet and share some of the excellent content out there.

The theme this year was Nature, and how it can support our wellbeing. (And aid recovery from mental illness)

When you sit down to think about it, nature can be interpreted in many ways, and have many beneficial opportunities. How many can I think of? The key with this is to try and build as many of these as we can into our lives, as often as possible. Along with other self care strategies and coping techniques, and drawing on the support of friends, family and services – together these things support wellbeing, give us ways to escape our stressors and recover from adversity

  • Go Green… Green is good for us in lots of ways, spending time in green spaces, making the spaces we spend time in more green.
  • From the big to the small – I’m lucky to live on the edge of the moors, with easy access to wide open spaces, even if i’m not always fit enough to take advantage. Figure out where your nearest accessible countryside is, and how to get there – plan a trip as soon as you can.
  • If not the countryside – how about a park? Even our most industrial cities generally have a number of parks we can take advantage of. Make a point of exploring them and finding out your favourite. Take a picnic, a kite, a blanket, a book.
  • Maybe there are smaller green spaces in your neighbourhood – not quite a park, but a patch of grass, scrubland, grass verges – even roundabouts! One of my favourite nature memories is the smiles I used to see on my bus home through heavy traffic in Leeds, when we passed a roundabout which was populated by bunnies. I even wrote a book about it. Make sure you remember your green cross code if you’re crossing roads, but see what you can find. If your area isn’t too pleasant – maybe you could set up a guerilla gardening and clean up group to make it better!
  • If you’re lucky enough to have some garden space, are you making the most of it? Spending some time outside to begin with.
  • You might like to take your socks off and walk barefoot in the grass – some suggest this has health benefits, -regardless, it can be quite pleasant. Check that the area you want to walk in is free from sharp objects or other unpleasantness you wouldn’t want between your toes. Whether the grass is warm from the sun, cold and wet from rain or dew, or muddy and squishy – explore the sensations you experience, and try to feel connected to the earth. Walking on stone can also bring different feelings, from pain to pleasure depending on the texture.
  • Look, and really see. What’s in your space – what plant life, animals, insects? Split your space into foot or metre square sections, map what’s there, learn about it. The more we look at a single space, the more we see – a patch of grass turns out to be made up of different types of grass, moss, daisies, dandelions and other plants, and home to insects, the earth containing stones and pebbles and bits of old pot or glass. Even a rock, when investigated, shows us the glistening beauty of the grains and particles that make it, the different facets of its shape, shadows and spaces that give it form.
  • If you do have a garden, and you are fit enough – give gardening a go – explore different kinds of planting, space, and get digging. If you don’t have a lot of money to spare – borrow books from your library, and look out for local plant or seed swap groups. If you do have money but no strength or inclination, you could always pay someone to make your space just how you like it. But if you can do some yourself, try – not only is it great exercise and a strength builder, the act of planting, nurturing and watching your plants grow is very rewarding & mindful. Problem solving when things go wrong is also a great distraction.
  • If you don’t have a garden – think about whether you could have a window box, or indoor plants – grow some herbs on your kitchen or bathroom windowsills. If you aren’t able to do this, or convinced of your ability to keep things alive (Though there are plenty of low-maintenance options, like airplants or cacti) – even pictures can have a beneficial effect. How about you make your screen saver an image of beautiful countryside or far flung locations.
  • When the weather is dry, and the sky is blue, preferably with clouds – find a safe space to lay out a blanket or coat, and lie down. Look at the sky. Watch the clouds. The endless shifting of the skies. Look for imagery in the clouds, see how they come and go.
  • When the weather is dry and the sky is clear, at night – find a safe space to lay out a blanket or coat, (wrap up warm), and lie down. Look up at the stars. If you can go somewhere as far as possible from streetlights, all the better. Go with a friend. Look at the endless universe, see the constellations, the satellites, the planets. Look at the blackness in between and know that it is full of light, just that you cannot see it with your eyes. (Remember that this is what the Hubble found when picking a spot of darkness to look into). `When the weather is wet – go out for a little while without an umbrella, let the rain wash your face, your arms and hands. Feel each drop as it trickles down your neck. It can be quite freeing to cry in the rain, if you need to. I feel like the sky is crying with me.
Hubble Ultra Deep Field Image
  • Let the wind blow your cobwebs away. Feel it on your skin and in your hair.
  • (Make sure you get dry and warm after 12 or 13 – revel in the contrast between the cold wind and rain, and warm towels, hot tea, coffee or cocoa)
  • If you can – go for a walk, run, ride or wheel in nature. In the wildest place it is safe for you to go. Go somewhere you are unsure about. Take a map. Keep your phone charged and keep an eye on your signal. Make sure someone knows where you are going. Watch your footing. Walk until you stop thinking about your worries and then keep walking until you start having ideas. Walk until you are out of breath. Try do this as often as possible.
  • Go to the highest place you can and look out at the horizon. Look at the world around you. See the stillness, and the movement. Look out for people and creatures living their lives. Try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling. Look at the rocks and the trees. How long have they been there? What have they seen? How many lives have been lived and lost while they stood by?
  • Seek out water. Do you live by the sea? Can you visit? Go paddling or swimming, or sit and let the waves wash over you for a moment.
  • Feel the warm sand under your bare feet
  • Pick up a handful of dry sand and let it spill through your fingers
  • Look at a handful of sand, each chrystaline grain, tiny seashell.
  • Find the best pebbles or shells on the beach, the shiniest, the most interesting shapes, beautiful colours. Pick one to give to each of your friends and one for yourself.
  • Make sandcastles. Sand cities, Recreate the canals of Venice in the sand.
  • Dig a hole
  • Get someone to cover you in sand except for your head
  • Make a sand sculpture
  • Look for rock pools and shellfish.
  • Watch a crab
  • Go fishing with a net (and put them back)
  • Go to a lake or reservoir – walk around it or along the shore line
  • Go and find some waterfalls – bonus points if you can stand under them or let the water wash over your hands
  • Take up wild swimming (safely)
  • Walk along your nearest river, stream or canal. Look out for wild life in, near or around the water.
  • Put a pond or water feature in your garden
  • Look for life wherever you are.
  • Learn about and watch birds – listen to their song, notice the colours of their plumage. Watch the soap operas of their lives
  • Learn about the animals in your area – get involved in their protection.
  • Visit bird sanctuaries, nature reserves, butterfly houses, zoos or safari parks. (Look into them first to make sure they are looking after the animals and contributing to conservation) Get to know some critters.
  • Go and look at some farm animals – either in the countryside or at an urban farm. This is a great time to see lambs and foals. Watch sheep, horses, cows, wandering about their fields. Slow down to their pace.
  • Make friends with bugs.
  • Make the most of your pets! Especially the furry ones. Spend some time playing with them, stroking, massaging, looking them in the eyes. Learn how they communicate and tell them you love them. Share some valuable oxytocin by having a cuddle.
  • Go foraging! Preferably with someone knowledgeable – enjoy the fruits of nature. Especially enjoyable when the berries come out. Don’t eat anything you aren’t sure about – especially mushrooms/fungi.
  • Go berry picking and get enough to make something delicious when you get home. Muffins are easy and tasty, as is a crumble.
  • Visit some open gardens – enjoy the flowers and learn about them
  • Find a sensory garden, or a herb garden, and smell the different plants, enjoy the different scents. Smell the roses!
  • Explore the different textures of nature. Cold hard rock, smooth damp leaves, soft warm fur, sharp thorns, rough stone, cool water, warm mud, dry sand.
  • Make a snow man
  • Have a snowball fight
  • Build an igloo
  • Eat (clean) snow
  • Have an icicle sword fight.
  • Sunbathe (with suncream on)
  • Read a book in the sunshine
  • Join a walking/cycling/running/fell running etc group
  • Watch a documentary about animals, plants, the planet, space, the weather
  • Learn about the aspects of nature that interest you most

I could keep going with this forever. Remembering we are part of nature is a huge part of my recovery – much of our stress and anxiety comes from lives which remove us from nature, the rhythms of life, the benefits of air and sun and exercise and watching the cycle of life. Find a way to reconnect. Remember you are nature too.

What do you mean I’m not perfect?

People seemed to like my painting last month so here’s April’s effort – the Packhorse Bridge and Wavy steps in my home tome Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire. I thought I’d use this painting as a jumping off point on some thoughts around mental health.

Painting of packhorse bridge and wavy steps in Hebden Bridge, houses in the background, the White Swan pub, people on the steps and children paddling in the river.
Packhorse Bridge & Wavy Steps – Hebden Bridge

I was showing it to my mum the other day, and she pointed out something she thought could be improved. Which is ok. I’m never completely happy with anything I do. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Which is a shame because perfection is almost impossible. And in truth sometimes it is life’s imperfections which are the most beautiful. But yeah – she picked on the spot I was least happy with. And truth be told I might go back and work on it a bit more, because I’m always learning. But even if I manage to improve on that – there’ll still be something my eye will be drawn to, that I think is not good enough. I know I have a problem with this.

We all have a tendency to lean towards the negative. To focus on the problems. It’s natural, and important, and it keeps us safe. Because it’s not the sturdy, healthy planks on the rickety bridge we need to worry about, but the ones that are half rotten and might have us plunging to our deaths. But sometimes we can become so fixated on those problem planks that we don’t see that actually we can cross quite safely regardless.

Sometimes that natural negative mental filter goes into overdrive, and it blows small negatives out of all proportion, makes us think something is ruined if it isn’t perfect. Makes us disregard anything positive that is going on. Me fixating on that one bit I don’t like on the painting, ignoring other bits I quite like, like the stonework on the bridge, or the water under the arches, or the overall impression, which is at the very least OK.

Just as I might be chuffed to receive some fantastic feedback on a course, but I won’t remember it, or dwell on it as long as that time someone said something quite unkind – that frankly reflects more on them than it does my performance, but still makes me feel like i’m a failure.

It’s all down to acceptance. If I’m not perfect, don’t do a good enough job, don’t paint as well as Leonardo da Vinci – then maybe people won’t accept me, maybe I will be rejected, maybe I will be turned out of my house, community, and be alone and cold and wet and friendless and in danger.

Daft, I know. But somewhere in my ancient lizard brain that’s what I’m thinking. And I can recognise it, and know it’s silly, but it takes a lot of work to get to a place where i’m ok with not being perfect. Not being liked even. To listen more to the good things – to process and learn from the bad, but also realise I can disagree. Learning to accept our selves, recognise and celebrate our strengths. Let go of perfection.

Hebden Bridge has helped me on that journey – a supportive community where I find it easier to be myself. Lots of opportunities for creative expression. Wild, beautiful nature to get outside and gain a sense of perspective on life. Come visit sometime, when it’s safe – cafes, pubs, wonderful shops and galleries, walking and woods, canals and mills. Lots of paddling opportunities.

Come and learn more about mental health with me on one of my online courses – Mental Health First Aid, Mental Health Awareness and more.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/sarah-long-mental-health-amp-wellbeing-14624952023

Off Topic(ish) – Sarah Long Art

One of the many ways I have been helping keep my mental health in a good place this past year, has been painting. It’s always been good for me – I enjoy it immensely and find it a very mindful activity – focussed attention, challenging action. But I’ve always found it hard to give myself permission to spend the time on it, or build up a habit. However – after managing a couple of paintings last year, I made a resolution to try and do one a month in 2021.

I’ve shared these on twitter and linked in and a few people have expressed an interest in seeing more. I am going to look at doing a range of high quality prints in summer, – so will probably be setting up a site or page to show them off, with better, clearer pictures – but for now here are some of my more recent works. I’m open to suggestion for future topics – this year I’m keeping to Yorkshire – alternating between more local to Hebden Bridge and further afield.

Whitby, North Yorkshire
Old Town Mill, Hebden Bridge
Kirkgate Market, Leeds
Pecket Well, Hebden Bridge
Piece Hall, Halifax
Birchcliffe, Hebden Bridge

Checkpoint 20/21

April has long been a time of reflection and planning for me – years of working in an organisation where performance review, business planning and financial year end were all jumbled together. I don’t have a boss any more to make me do it so indulge me while I naval gaze for a moment. It is as good a time as any to reflect on the year gone by, and set out hopes for the new. .

And what a year we have to reflect on.

My prayers are with those we have lost, and my love to those who bear this bereavement most closely. Many of us have faced significant stress and hardship in this last year, I hope that we find the days to come brighter and easier.

This time last year I had no idea what the future held. I only knew that all my work had been cancelled and I didn’t have any savings. But I had my health and the sun was shining so I tried to count my blessings and hope for the best.

Thankfully I was able to adapt, and gradually make the shift to online training – working with a variety of organisations over the year, qualifying to deliver new courses, learning new skills & platforms, trying to push myself to use some new tools and take up new opportunities. It hasn’t been easy and there were big chunks of time where things were very uncertain (and no doubt there will be more to come) – but to say that I managed to help 485 people learn to understand mental health in a variety of ways over the past year is astounding.

My enormous thanks to MHFA England for the work they have done to set up the online learning platform and adapt courses for online delivery. Also for the variety of opportunities to feed back and communicate with them, and other trainers in a similar position – which has been an enormous improvement on previous years and provided emotional support which has really helped get me through. And I know I’m not alone in thinking that.

I’ve learnt a lot in this unusual year, about my abilities, preferences, priorities. I think many of us have. With my fingers firmly crossed that this current roadmap does lead us back to a safe and open future – I hope we hold on to that learning. Recognise what we are capable of in a crisis. Appreciate what we liked or enjoyed about the last year – and try not to let it go. And of course relish being able to return to those things that we have missed, sooner or later. Not take them for granted again too soon either.

I am nervous about it. My anxiety took a back seat for a good while last year – my introverted, neurodivergent self is quite well suited to lockdown life. But it found ways to re-emerge. I have been lonely, but find some of the wonderful efforts of ongoing community and connection that I have seen to be even more isolating. Seeing others connect when you don’t is saddening. I will continue to be anxious about my health, and others’ – I had health anxiety before the pandemic, 150,000 deaths has done little to assuage that. But all I can do is take precautions. Be careful. Weigh up the risks against the benefits of each action. The early part of 2021 was difficult, I have had some moments where depression has reared its head and with it old urges to respond to my distress in a variety of unhelpful or unhealthy ways. But with the love of my husband I shake it off, mostly.

Anyway. What are my personal positive and negatives? Achievements or regrets. And what do I hope for the year to come.

Positives

Online training – love the new course format
Great feedback from delegates
Meeting and getting to know other trainers
Going on the radio
Doing a podcast
Doing some Facebook video/lives
Exploring new online content options
Completing the Science of Happiness course
Learning something new every day (J’apprends le francais avec Duo…)
Making myself paint
Delivering 56 courses, reaching 485 people
Qualifying to deliver 2 new courses
Volunteering with SHOUT to offer support via text to people in crisis (Text SHOUT to 85258)
No lugging heavy suitcases hundreds of miles on trains
Spending more time with my husband and cats
Vaccine
New pen pal

Negatives

Not seeing family & friends
Cancellation of work with organisations I like working with
Cancellation of open courses due to lack of bookings
No face to face training conversations
Eating too many biscuits
Financial insecurity
Not getting enough exercise
Health anxiety
Forgetting how to interact with others
Worrying about societal divisions
Worrying about splits in my community
Worrying for others who are more at risk than I (health or finance wise)
Too much time on screen – bad for eyes and RSI

Plans for future
Go back to doing more audio / video
Podcast?
Developing new courses / training options
> Wellbeing course
> Mental Health Masterclass for Employers
Return to some face to face training?
Continuing with online training.
Making new connections with clients
Get my garden in hand
Writing more.
Keep learning
Keep painting
Get prints done and set up art sales.
More exercise!
Seeing Parents and Friends!
Visiting the seaside.
Supporting local shops, pubs, restaurants and venues where I can
Pursue Coaching & Mentoring training
Get therapy.

What are your take-aways from this year? What are your plans for the future? It may take a while to get there, but that just gives us more time to plan and prepare.

Find Your Why

Why do you do what you do?

Picture of a hand holding a compass
Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

And by that I don’t just mean what you do for work, though that is a big part of the question. I also mean, why do you spend your leisure time doing whatever it is you do. Why do you choose to respond to that facebook post but not that other one?

We only have this moment, this one life, that we know of. Even if there is another beyond, it doesn’t make these seconds ticking by any less precious. Are you content with how you are spending this most precious and finite of resources?

Sometimes the best way to spend a moment is doing nothing. Is lounging on the sofa staring at the TV, hand grasping a beer, the other one in a bag of crisps. But other times, that is an enormous waste. And a bigger waste are the moments we will spend feeling guilty about having done it, feeling bad about ourselves, berating or punishing ourselves.

So if we want to have less of those accidental wasted moments, we need to try and be a little bit more deliberate about life. Think about what we want to spend our moments on, and why.

Another waste is when we spend our working lives doing something we hate. Something we don’t enjoy, or aren’t very good at, or with people we don’t like or get along with, or which makes us unwell and unable to enjoy they rest of the moments in our lives. And yet so many of us spend years like that.

I know I have. I spent decades in a job that was terrible for me. Don’t get me wrong. It was a good job. I enjoyed most of the work. I was good at it. It paid relatively well. It kept me fed and with a roof over my head, and promised a pension which will make life a little easier if I live to receive it. But it made me ill. It was stressful. There were toxic relationships on all sides, at all levels. The culture of the organisation was unpleasant. It was restrictive and we were undervalued and constantly targeted in different ways. I spent hours crying in toilets, my sleep was destroyed, I had panic attacks, palpitations – I went through cycles of depression and hypomania, I self harmed, I had problematic eating, I drank waaaay too much. I made a total mess of my life. Not all of this was to do with work but the poison of that job seeped through everything – like you see in films where something spreads through a character’s system making all their veins stand out black under the skin.

When I studied counselling I was introduced to the idea of congruence. Where one is living in line with ones inner values and beliefs. Able to express oneself honestly. If for whatever reason we can’t do this, and we are in a state of incongruence – because for instance our parents have different beliefs from us, or we disagree with how our employer acts, or we have to do something in our professional life we would not do if we were acting in a personal capacity – it is jarring. It feels uncomfortable, It is damaging, it eats away at us. It makes us feel at odds with everything around us and fearful of being found out and ejected. (As an aside this is one reason I really strongly disagree with workplace policies which restrict personal social media use – one way to diffuse incongruence is freedom of expression. With limits obviously – but if you are worried about an employee damaging your reputation by talking honestly about their experiences, you are missing the point. Make sure their experiences enhance your reputation.)

On the other hand – if we are congruent – if we can build a life which is in line with our values – and also make use of our strengths, and the things we enjoy – then we blossom, we thrive. We know we are doing good, we are meeting our expectations of our selves, we are serving a purpose. And that makes us feel safe and contented in our place in society.

So. Are you congruent? What are your values? What do you believe your life should be for?

I do what I do (now) – because I believe strongly and passionately that we all deserve to enjoy good mental health and that in order to do that we need to understand it – and other people need to understand it and how we can help each other. Employers need to understand it so they can structure their expectations of people healthily and provide support for wellbeing. We need to build understanding of mental health and what influences into every stage of our education system so we can try to a) avoid problems in the first place, b) spot signs of issues emerging as early as possible, c) feel ok about acknowledging that in ourselves and those we love and d) get help to those who need it. I strongly believe that the vast majority of us would be able to return to wellbeing if we are able to access the right supports – and that if we were able to do that it would free up resources and research to help find ways to make a difference for those with more severe and enduring mental health issues which may be harder to treat or help. We could radically transform our world if we got this right.

I try to contribute to this by helping people understand mental health and have the courage and confidence to offer support. I help employers to see the point, the human, legal, ethical and business case behind supporting wellbeing at work. I help individuals understand their own situations and needs and believe they deserve to live a happier, healthier life, and that they have the power to make that happen.

And through doing that – I make it happen for myself.

Not overnight. There are things I still don’t like, aspects of my working life that jar, and rub – and that tells me I need to investigate, and ask why, and adjust. Pain is where the work needs to be done.

How about you. Why do you do what you do? Do you spend your moments on something that is worth your time? Or are you at odds? Could you change that?

Ask yourself – what matters to you? What do you value? Is that reflected in how you live your life? Could it be?

There are lots of tools and questionnaires out there which help you explore this topic – it’s never too late to make a change. Maybe you can’t do it overnight. But if you know you aren’t happy with where you are – this can help you figure out where you want to be, which is the very first step in getting there.

Training Dates – March – Jun

It’s that time again – new dates scheduled for open training courses from March-June.

Online Mental Health First Aid (4 Sessions)
Sunday Mornings from April 11th
Wednesday Evenings from April 14th
Friday Mornings from April 16th

Monday Afternoons from June 7th
Saturday Mornings from June 12th
Thursday Evenings from June 17th

Online Mental Health Champion (2 Sessions)
Friday Mornings from March 19th
Friday Mornings from May 28th

Online Mental Health Aware (Half Day)
Monday Morning March 15th
Monday Afternoon May 17th

Online Mental Health First Aid Refresher (Half Day)
Friday Morning April 9th
Monday Morning May 10th

As always I need a minimum number of bookings to be able to go ahead – as these courses are online this is only 3 at present, but if we aren’t able to get that on a course you have booked on to – then you will be offered a refund or a place on a future course (sometimes of higher value than the course you chose). The minimum is to improve your learning experience – I’d prefer more, but we need 3 if possible to do activities and have a chance of discussion.

Details and costs are listed on the Eventbrite pages – there are a range of discounts for different circumstances to try and ensure the training is accessible to most – some at your discretion, some you will need to send me evidence of eligibility to receive a promotional code.

While the special NHS/Social Care rate has come to an end (for now) – I am now including public service organisations in the Charity rate – including NHS, Social Care, Emergency Services and Armed Forces. Please send proof that you work in these organisations to access the special rate.

Where does it hurt?

I’m feeling very anxious at the moment. The days in the run up to training, or having to do anything involving other human beings are full of stress and nerves and even panic. I feel lacking in confidence and desire, tired and overwrought. I just want to shut down, curl up in a ball, go back to bed. Even looking at the endless rent-an-argument of twitter has me rocking back and forth, or (fictional) people having (fictional) arguments on the television.

There’s a lot to be anxious about at the moment. And this reticence to engage with others is nothing new, nor pandemic specific for me. But perhaps it has different significance at the moment. With so few interactions with people, each has more power – to boost or to bulldoze my self esteem and feeling of connection.

Much is made of the importance of connection, of socialisation for our wellbeing. There is indeed much evidence of our need to be loved and accepted by our peers, the mutual benefit of a smile, hug, touch. It’s certainly vital for our early development and continued thriving. But I’d be interested in what research has been done into the impact of imperfect or negative interactions. For those of us who find it hard to communicate or get on with others, considering issues of neurodiversity, social anxiety, trauma, etc. – If interaction is largely stressful or difficult for you, is no interaction as harmful as it might be for other people who enjoy and find it easy? Or is it the situations where we find ourselves on high alert which do the damage?

Frustratingly of course a lot of researchers seek a “typical” cohort to study, and so would perhaps reject the outliers.

In any case anxiety serves a purpose – it is a signal – a sign that I feel threatened and am trying to deal with that. It is a message that there is a problem. Just like pain.

I may have written about this before, my memory is shocking. I’m thinking of when I went for physiotherapy. I get a lot of RSI type problems with my wrist, elbow, shoulder. I’ve also had problems with Plantar Fasciitis. What these things have in common is that they have caused me pain, and when they have flared up, I have tended to try and avoid that pain. To put the weight elsewhere, or use my other arm. I have rubbed, but then laid off when it was particularly tender.

Image shows hands massaging someone's back
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Of course this pain tells us there is a problem. But sometimes, laying off is exactly the wrong thing to do. Put your weight on your right foot because your left foot is hurting – soon you have two aching feet. Stop doing movements with your arm that cause you pain, sometimes all that happens is you stiffen up and lose your range of movement. Sometimes what we need to do is walk through it. Use exercises and massages, techniques, to work into those painful spots and loosen them up so the scar tissue dissipates and we regain the movement and strength and flexibility we had before (or something close to it). Concentrating on the pain, noticing when it hurts, what aggravates it can teach us more about where it came from – and then we can think about preventing future problems too.

So – my anxiety, a pain which flares in situations where I feel vulnerable to judgement or criticism, (my primitive mind fearing rejection and the risks of destitution) – my first instinct to protect myself, to avoid those situations which make me feel this way, but that just leads me to become more and more anxious. More self conscious. More convinced that nobody likes me, that i’m stupid, that I can’t do this. And with no evidence to counteract these negative appraisals I might believe that they are true. (Though of course there is evidence to counter – should I choose to look, feedback, comments, friends)

So I must instead, when I can, to use the old cliche, feel the fear and do it anyway. Feel the stiff and swollen joint and knead gently into the pain. Sometimes in the kneading, I learn. I remember things which have made me feel this way. Situations where I have felt I must do everything right or face rejection. Times I have been rejected, and made to feel it was my fault for not doing x, y or z. Times that my opinion or expertise has been ignored or belittled because it wasn’t what someone wanted to hear, or because of the dynamics of family, age, sex, and so on. Understanding these things help me understand the pain, the fear may not be justified. But it doesn’t always make the pain disappear.

Exploring psychological trauma is hard, painful and sometimes even dangerous. We need to be in the right place, have the right support and resources on hand. Perhaps the middle of a pandemic is not the right time for you to be delving into the painful spots. Or perhaps this is giving you time and space to find clarity for yourself. There’s no shame in curling up in a ball and protecting yourself if you are not feeling up to the challenge. Just know you do deserve to be free from your pain. You do deserve support.

Sometimes our pain sends us a valuable message. While I know some of my anxiety is unjustified, there is always an element of stress when we perform in front of others, which is part of what we do as teachers and trainers. Educational performance but performance nonetheless. And where we seek evaluation for continuous development, we invite negative as well as positive responses.

Part of my discomfort, this tug I feel, is a constant questioning – am I on the right path? Do I want to be where I am, to be going where I am headed? Part of me doesn’t want to open myself to judgement which has such potential to undermine me at every turn – not in connection to my livelihood. Something isn’t quite right – and my anxiety reminds me to think about it. Work on it. Adjust my course and see if I can find a direction that allows me to float more comfortably. Creating, Sharing, Teaching what I know, learning as I go. Hoping I help along the way.