Tag Archives: mental health

Learning to meditate

I have been an advocate of meditation for years. I used to love dropping into the London Buddhist Centre whenever I got the chance, just to soak up the atmosphere if nothing else. I held the thought of finding that inner peace, that inner silence, on something of a pedestal.

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When I started teaching I quickly became interested in holistic approaches to helping teenagers cope with the stresses of school, and enthusiastically read reports of daily meditation transforming students’ experiences. I tried to find ways to feed it into the school day – created resources featuring links to guided visualisations for my colleagues to use in tutor time. It seemed to make such perfect sense: take the time to breathe, to reconnect with yourself, and suddenly everything would be so much easier to cope with.

I have a confession to make, though: I had absolutely no idea how to actually do it.

I still don’t.

There was a leadership course I went on that sticks in my mind. It was about Project Management I think, and there was a whole section of it focusing on Work Life Balance. I’ve always struggled with that. Once I get stuck into something I find it almost impossible to let it go, only to collapse in a heap when it’s finally done. Harder to take that approach with a kid to look after mind… The thing I remember about this section of the course, other than being told by the facilitator that I really needed to work on my Work Life Balance (thanks) was being led through a guided meditation at the end of it.

Being a Teaching Leadership course, this was as with everything couched in its potential in the classroom. That I could totally get behind. But to do it? To actually stop moving and quiet my brain enough to attempt the meditation myself? That kind of scared me a little bit.

I’d never really stopped to think about how odd this all was. How I can be completely won over by something both in theory and through the positive impact I’ve seen it have on other people, how I know that this thing is probably exactly what I need to help me deescalate my tendencies towards stress and anxiety, and yet how I have never, in the twenty years or so that it has been on my radar, made the effort to include it in my life, for me.

I guess ultimately reaching for a glass of wine at the end of the day is a whole lot easier to get my head around…

But part of my ‘kick 2017’s ass‘ plan of action is to change that. January is proving a little bit extreme in my efforts to jumpstart this year of productivity – I’m going for a full-on no booze, no caffeine, no dairy, no gluten, no sugar (etc) detox, upping my activity levels with more walking, swimming and yoga, doing all sorts of life-organising, goal-setting, motivation-boosting work related stuff AND trying to find the time to meditate, every day.

And mainly it’s working.

Almost every single day I’m managing to fit in ten minutes of guided meditation. I don’t think I’m very good at it – stilling my mind is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever really tried to do – but I’m giving it a go, and I’m learning.

I’m learning what kinds of meditations work for me, and which ones don’t.

Visualisations, for example, are really tough. I think it’s the writer in me – I find myself either judging the narrative for its plethora of cliches, or else getting drawn in just enough to begin to flesh out the story around the scenario. Why am I in this secluded cabin in the woods? Am I really alone? Is that safe..? This beach… Where is it exactly? Can I swim? I’d like to swim… And so on. It’s a real effort, trying to stop my mind from riffing on the words. And as for being able to turn them into images that’s really not working for me so far.

Stuff focused on my breathing is better. I like breathing – consciously. It’s a bit of a hangover from my acting days I reckon. And as long as I don’t get too competitive about it it seems to work to chill me out.

There was a new meditation I tried tonight, on cultivating kindness and compassion. I was a little sceptical I admit, but actually there was something incredibly healing about all of those positive vibes. (Especially when directed towards the people who have been monumentally stressing me out over the past 48 hours, but I’m not going to dwell on that…)

Basically this is a journey that is worth continuing. And possibly one I should have started a lot earlier… But hey – we have to let go of the past, right? Focus on the present, and build our resilience for the future.

That’s what I’m going with anyway.

 

 

In search of clarity

I have never been a huge fan of the January detox.

The thought of depriving myself of the treats that make the longer winter nights easier to bear has just never really appealed, and I have been far more often found curled up on the sofa with iPlayer and a glass of wine than sipping herbal tea and counting steps as the festive season fades.

This year, however, is different.

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There are lots of reasons why. As 2016 hurtled along, each day bringing new disaster on a global or personal scale, I found it hard at times to catch my breath. Even though my little corner of the world remained relatively unscathed the noise in my head escalated until it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other. I found some space on this blog to give voice to the flashes of inspiration that fought their way through the mire, but I never had the clarity to follow them through.

I found temporary respite in a newly kindled love of cold water swimming – I just kept getting in the sea as summer turned to autumn and have yet to stop – but aside from those rushes of endorphins I spent way more time than I should have done wallowing in despair at the state of society, and fearing that my own small efforts were doomed to be forever futile.

Christmas and New Year were a real escape from all that – even with the hecticness of a fourth birthday in between it all it was a wonderful couple of weeks of hanging out with family and friends, the physical reinforcement of the wonderful online community that kept me going last year.

January, though, has brought me down with a bump.

My head is fuzzy through weeks of too much booze and too little sleep, my body feels ungainly and sluggish, my heart aches for something that I am finding it impossible to put into words.

This New Year angst is making me want to raze everything to the ground and start again – to shelve my blog, to resign from the council, to scrap the plans I began to articulate as 2016 drew to a close. It all seems like pointless clutter – although, writing and Arthur aside, I have no idea what else I want to be doing with my time!

It is that, really, that’s giving me pause, and making me realise that I need to take control. I need to get my mind back in proper working order, and I know that the state of my mind is intrinsically linked to the state of my body.

So: detox.

A resetting of my physical state driven by clean eating (and clean drinking). A renewed effort to build on the physical and mental boost that sea swimming has given me with more of the same, reinforced by finding as many other opportunities as I can to get outdoors and get active. I want to build in regular yoga again, too – and to steal a few minutes each day to meditate. And to sleep, properly and deeply, to recharge and rejuvenate my soul.

I’m not setting myself strict rules or targets (I’m still too much of a rebel to respond well to those), but I do have a couple of tools that I’m hoping will help. For Christmas I was given a Bellabeat Leaf, a health monitor that in the couple of days I’ve been using it has already had a hugely positive impact on my motivation. I have sought out a goal-orientated diary, too – the Inspire Now journal, which I can see has lots of potential to help me bring about the clarity I crave.

And I might discover, as this month unfolds, that the detox will extend to other parts of my life too – that I will need to make some difficult decisions about how I use my time, to become more focused and more selfish.

2016 was a challenging year, but I fear 2017 will not be any easier – the seeds that have been sown point to things getting a whole lot more difficult before they begin to turn a corner. I want the resilience to deal with that, and hopefully in my own small way to make things better.

And that’s not going to happen unless I am physically and mentally strong.

Why early mornings are good for my wellbeing as well as my word count

My efforts to be an early bird have ground to a halt since coming back from holiday. It was only a week, but I clearly did such a good job on getting away from it all and relaxing that I have completely forgotten how to motivate myself to get up in the morning – and it’s not just my writing that’s suffering.

Before I went away I had a post milling around in my head about how many unexpected upsides there were to getting up early to write: now seems like a very good time to get it down, and remind myself of all those reasons in the process…

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It makes for a much healthier start to the day

I’m not entirely sure why, but waking up earlier seems to reduce my desire for coffee. I find myself feeling all virtuous and full of good intentions, so my early-morning typing will be accompanied by hot water and lemon and a large glass of berocca – saving the all-important coffee for later. My mum has long extolled the benefits of lemon water first thing, and it certainly seems to have some sort of magical properties! It might just be that I’m taking time to hydrate myself properly before starting on the caffeine, but for whatever reason that just doesn’t seem to happen when I’m getting up an hour or two later with a toddler scampering around my ankles.

It lets me focus on writing before my head gets too full with everything else

I’ve written about the positive effect starting early has on my writing before, and in the six weeks since then my word count has climbed by almost 25,000 to 38,000 words. I’m not going to pretend those words have always been easy to come by, but they are a damn sight easier to put my finger on first thing in the morning than later in the day. The last two days, having wasted away those precious minutes with the snooze button, I’ve tried to sit down and write in the afternoon – but nothing. Not a jot. There is simply so much else going on in my world that even if I turn over my to do list it’s still glaring at me from the corners of my mind. First thing in the morning, it doesn’t get a look in – I’m pretty sure my brain knows that it should count itself lucky enough that I’m even awake, let alone tackling all the other things I should be doing.

It means I can spend the rest of the morning playing without feeling guilty

Playing is a serious business in this house. Having taken the decision to unschool my preschooler rather than sending him to a childminder or nursery to engage in the early years curriculum, I know that I have a responsibility to tune in to his learning needs – which at the moment are all about play. He is getting increasingly good at playing independently, but he of course loves it when I join in – and we try to get out of the house as much as we can too, to meet friends or do group activities or just explore our neighbourhood. If I’m not careful, I can spend half of this time with my mind elsewhere or my eyes on my phone, trying desperately to fit in little snippets of work. But if I’ve already squared away a good stint of writing before he’s even up then I find it way easier to be fully present for this time, saving up the other tasks for when he’s chilling in the afternoon.

It lowers my stress levels for the rest of the day

This completely links to the point above, but I think it’s important not to underestimate how powerful starting your day with a good dose of achieving is for your self-esteem. When I don’t manage to get up to write, I spend the rest of the day chasing my tail, being eaten away by the niggling feeling that I’ve let myself down.

It makes me less tired

Now this one’s a bit counter-intuitive, but I guess makes sense when considering everything else. My justification for the repeated tap of the snooze button as 6am gradually disappears from view is that if I could only get a bit more sleep then the rest of the day would be so much more manageable. But that never actually seems to be the case. If I don’t take charge of my day, and instead fritter away the beginnings of it in broken sleep, then when I am finally forced out of bed by a hungry toddler I am way more weary than I would otherwise have been. And it doesn’t go away either – without the boost of confidence and everything else that comes from starting early I find myself sleepwalking through the rest of the day, counting down the minutes until I can collapse into bed again. Until the evening of course, when that second wind creeps over me and makes me stay up way too late. Again.

Now I realise that for those of you to whom early morning chirpiness comes naturally much of this will seem painfully obvious. But it does not come naturally to me: I have, for as many of the last thirty-seven years that I can remember, been a fully fledged night owl.

The time has clearly come for a shift, though. And I’ll be taking these words with me to bed tonight to make sure that at 6am tomorrow morning that snooze button doesn’t even get a look in.

 

Writing Bubble

 

You Baby Me Mummy

The power of the narcissist

I’ve been grappling with a bit of a dilemma in the last few weeks. A figure from my past, who I worked hard to forget, has reappeared in a very public forum. He has been tasked by the government with a position of great responsibility, and that rankles with me. Because the person I knew ten years ago was far from deserving of such acclaim.

On several occasions I have come close to outing him – to sharing the details of his betrayal and asking, publicly, whether such a man should be trusted in this role. My decision not to was not an easy one to make: it does not come from a desire to protect him, or the feeling that he should be given the benefit of the doubt. It comes instead out of fear.

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Even as I type this I can feel my pulse quicken and a sour taste rise in my mouth. I am furious that, after all this time, he can have this hold over me: but such is the power of the narcissist.

This man did not abuse me, physically. What he did was way more insidious: undermined my self-esteem and worldview to the extent that I did not know which way was up any more, then pulled the rug from underneath me to reveal depths of deception that I had not even begun to imagine. He was an expert manipulator – to paraphrase his brother he was ‘a pathological liar who I would not trust with my own children’. And this is why, after much deliberation, I cannot bring myself to take him on. He has too much to lose, and I am sure he would have no qualms about destroying me in his quest to protect it.

Even at the time, it was hard to communicate to an outsider (or even to myself) what it was that was so toxic about our relationship. On the surface, I was holding it all together – a burgeoning teaching career, an active social life, the ability to turn on a smile whenever it was needed. But underneath it all I was slowly crumbling away. It took me many years to recover fully, and it’s just not a place I want to go back to.

It has got me thinking, though, about how strong women get taken down by manipulative men. I have met several women in the time that has passed who have escaped from similar situations, and each time my response has been similar: “But you’re so clever/pretty/funny/brilliant. How on earth could you let yourself get taken in by such a loser?”

And that’s from someone who’s been there. So how anyone who has not been subject to such skilled manipulation is expected to understand it is anyone’s guess.

This is in the forefront of my mind now as I begin to work on the latest draft of my second novel. Whilst it is not autobiographical, the dynamic of the central relationship definitely plays out along these lines. And the conversation I had with my agent about it last week mirrors my fears about trying to resurrect the injustices of the past. To her, it’s just not believable. The predicament my protagonist wanders haplessly into makes her look impossibly naive. It is the behaviour, she suggested, of a teenage girl rather than a confident woman in her twenties.

I wish I could go back and tell myself the same.

Of course, in the context of my novel, my agent is entirely right. Often events that are pulled directly from real life are incredibly difficult to translate into fiction. Without the anchor of incontrovertible fact the challenge of making someone buy into a story is all the harder. So I know I need to go back to the manuscript and work out how to do that, how to tweak and tease the details of my protagonist’s life and the way I tell her story to convince the reader that she really could be so vulnerable.

And against the backdrop of this ghost from my past being put on such a pedestal, my motivation to get it right is all the stronger.

I may not be brave (or stupid) enough to take this man to task on a public stage, but I can do my damnedest to expose the complex dance of mental disorder that unfolds in a narcissistic relationship. And maybe even, by holding a mirror sharpened by fiction up to the nightmare suffered by its victims, I can open up a dialogue which will enable others to be a little less afraid of confronting the demons in their past.

 

Muddled Manuscript

 

Top tips for taming anxiety with a toddler in tow

The last few weeks have been pretty bonkers. So much so that this week, now that everything has started to calm down just a little bit, I’ve found myself struggling to focus and teetering on the edge of panic at the slightest thing.

It’s a tendency I recognise from periods in my life when I have been overcome by anxiety. Not the anxiety that is borne of a genuinely nerve-wracking situation, but rather the insidious and potentially overwhelming feeling that the world is about to spiral out of control.

It’s frustrating to say the least – there was so much I wanted to get done this week, and sitting here now at the tail end of it there is so much I haven’t achieved. But most of what I wanted to do required focus, a clear head – and those are the things that have been most elusive.

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The difference though this time round is that I’ve recognised my symptoms for what they are – my sometimes fragile mental health crying out for a little attention after a relentless period where I was embroiled in the unknown territory of election campaigning (it worked by the way!), and my core support network of husband and mum have themselves been tied up in finals revision and preparing for my brother’s wedding respectively. But my anxiety hasn’t got the better of me, and I have made every effort to make sensible choices to enable myself to keep going.

Being accompanied by a toddler pretty much every minute of every day has definitely added a different dimension to that process. And not necessarily in a bad way.

It seems pretty apt, with this week being Mental Health Awareness Week, that I share a little of what’s been on my mind. So without further ado, these are my top tips for taming anxiety with a toddler in tow.

1) Catch up on sleep

I reckon this is possibly the most vital, though also the trickiest, part of the plan. I have tried to get to bed a bit earlier this week, though I’ve never really been very good at the discipline that involves (especially as we’re deep in the midst of season five of The Walking Dead).

For me snatching sleep has mostly happened during the day – taking my iPad up to bed so in the morning the toddler can snuggle up with a movie whilst I get a few extra zzzs, and for the first time in ages trying to nap when he naps.

I realise I’m lucky he still does, else I’m not entirely sure how I would have coped…

2) Eat healthily

I’m ordinarily pretty good at keeping a healthy diet going for all of us, but it had certainly started to slip over the last couple of weeks. I couldn’t face the battles that potentially ensued if I moved too far from toast and pasta, and didn’t have the energy to prepare something different for myself so ended up having my diet dictated by a two year old.

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It’s silly, because I know how much good food makes the difference. This week I’ve been upping the fruit and veg, cutting down on carbs, (mostly) remembering to take my supplements – and feeling all the better for it.

3) Get some exercise

There’s been an awful lot of walking involved in the election campaign, but that was accompanied by a sense of drudgery in the later stages. This week I’ve, albeit tentatively, started reintegrating yoga and hula-hooping into my routine. With that and the Friday trampolining sessions that I’ve just about managed to keep ticking over I’ve started to feel the spring returning to my step.

4) Get outside

I have a real tendency when I’m feeling overwhelmed to go into hibernation mode – even opening the doors to the garden can feel like too much at times. But having a little person around who would ideally spent every waking moment outside definitely comes in handy.

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We’ve had lunch outside a couple of times this week, and spent time just lounging around and looking up at the sky. The sunshine has helped – but actually the fresh air simply works wonders whatever the weather.

5) Tidy up!

Now this is something I’m rubbish at, and I still have a long way to go, but it is amazing how getting rid of the mess and the clutter makes the world seem so much more manageable!

I had a bit of a manic afternoon on Wednesday getting the kitchen ship shape as yesterday morning we were visited by a reporter from our local BBC News to interview me in relation to the local elections. It felt a little bit like torture at the time, but the kitchen is now definitely my happy place, a little oasis of calm amongst the widespread detritus which has come from just not having a second to get things under control (at least not without the toddler wreaking his own brand of havoc).

6) Tick some things off your to-do list

Now I have to admit first of all that the ever-increasing list of things I have to do is still residing mainly in my head. I know this isn’t helpful. My poor diary, that gave me such satisfaction when I first filled it in back in January, hasn’t had a look in for weeks.

I’ll work on that…

But in the meantime I have been having stern words with myself about just getting things done rather than ruminating over how much I need to do them. Writing blog posts, for example. Or emails. Or paying bills. All sorts of little bits and pieces that have literally felt like a weight off my mind once I’ve actually achieved them.

(It still took me until this evening to get round to writing this post. I never said I was perfect.)

7) Be kind to yourself

This is another biggie, and is one that is challenging to put into practise when your head is full of noise. But in order not to be consumed by it, it is vital to work on your internal dialogue.

I say dialogue, because at times like this there are two voices in my head rather than just the one. There’s one that seems determined to pull me down – with comparisons, with regrets, with paranoia. And there’s another, the one that needs to fight to get heard, that is trying its utmost to focus on the positive – to remember that it’s ok to feel overwhelmed, it’s ok to slow down, it’s ok not to achieve everything I wanted to, because actually, on balance, I’m doing a pretty awesome job of this whole life business.

8) Make the most of all the cuddles

This is where the toddler truly comes into his own, where having an extra little shadow really does become a blessing rather than just another cause of messiness and having too much to juggle.

I don’t know about yours, but my little person absolutely loves to snuggle up. Not all the time, but certainly more than I normally slow down to give him credit for. And this week I have been making the most of all of that physical contact filled with warmth and love – whether it’s lingering in bed a little longer in the mornings, cosying down together to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for the umpteenth time, or seeing off an approaching tantrum by whipping him up into the sling.

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There have been many times when I have been the centre of calm for my child, but it is a wonderful realisation that he can return that favour too.

 

My word of the week this week is anxiety.

The Reading Residence

Also linking up with this week’s prompt of calm. I’m getting there!

mumturnedmom
Mums' Days

Solitude

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For a long time my greatest fear was being alone.

I’m not sure when it started. Possibly around the time that I stopped believing in the fairies at the bottom of my garden and realised how mean people could be.

Often I would feel lonely even in a crowd. Especially then.

It took me forever to shake that gnawing teenage angst that no-one really understood me – or even wanted to. I had friends. Some really great friends, I can see that now. But at the time my paranoia wouldn’t let me appreciate them as much as I should have.

As you can probably imagine this didn’t bode terribly well for functional relationships. In my twenties I pinballed between variously inappropriate men: some lovely, some not so lovely, but none the right person to fill that chasm in my soul, however much I tried to convince myself that they were.

I began to think I should maybe look elsewhere, and decided to give internet dating a shot. It wasn’t really my thing, but I convinced myself I was being old-fashioned. I knew an increasing number of people who had found their soul-mate online after all.

One evening, after a couple of glasses of wine, I settled down to fill in the (rather lengthy) questionnaire which would give me access to one of these internet dating sites. As I made my way through the questions, responding as honestly as I could, I couldn’t help but begin to feel excited. This site was building such a detailed profile of me that it promised to only show up ‘deeply compatible’ potential partners. Whatever idiosyncrasies I feared I may have, well, they would have them too! No more trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak. This was it: my chance to find the perfect partner.

And then the results came back.

They started by saying they were very sorry, that this didn’t happen often. Well, ever actually.

But in their database of over three million people they did not, in fact, have a match for me.

This really makes me giggle when I think about it now. And it did then too, once I’d got over the initial shock. No wonder I’d had trouble finding love, had never been able to shake that niggling feeling of being alone – there simply wasn’t anyone out there who I was compatible with!

I decided it was time to make peace with myself, to accept my wonderful uniqueness for what it was, to begin to revel in being solitary rather than being afraid of it.

It didn’t last long. A couple of months later I found my future husband (sort of online as it happens) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Whilst I think I had finally got to a place where I was happy on my own, it’s hard to put into words how wonderful it was – and still is – to have found the person I’d been looking for. We have only been together for five years, but in that time we’ve shared so many adventures.

Now that we’ve embarked on this great adventure of parenthood together I’ve pretty much forgotten what it feels like to be alone. And the little person who has shared almost every minute with me since his conception almost three years ago does not care that I’m a bit peculiar. In fact he probably loves me even more because of it.

I admit that nowadays there are even times when I crave a bit of solitude.

But then I look back at how far I’ve come, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I am finally happy in my skin. And whilst it might now be a moot point, I am no longer afraid of being alone.

 

mumturnedmom

Word of the week: autumn

There’s no escaping it: after an unseasonably warm September, and some tantalisingly sunny days at the beginning of this month, autumn has finally arrived.

I’ve never been that great at dealing with this time of year. I thrive on light and sunshine, and as the nights begin to close in I can’t help but feel a lingering sense of dread. Things are a lot better than they used to be, now that I’m out of the city and not doing a job that means never seeing daylight in the winter months. And this year Arthur and I have actually been enjoying the coming of autumn rather a lot. 

We’ve made the most of it being a bit colder, wrapping up warm and snuggling up whenever we get the chance.

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There’s generally been lots of time for snuggling: we’ve had some pretty spectacular rain this week, and there’s been nothing for it but to stay inside. Arthur’s really embraced this. He’s been having tea parties with his animal friends, and devouring books like they’re going out of fashion.

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We’ve been getting out of the house whenever we can too, breathing in the changing landscape of the sea and sky. The air is deliciously refreshing, and there’s a whole hat collection for us to revisit.

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To fuel our way through this seasonal shift, we’ve been doing our best to eat healthily. We had our first roast last Sunday – I’m looking forward to many more of those – and I’ve been drinking even more water than usual.

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One of the problems with this time of year in the past has been that I’m not terribly good at making the right choices – I know what will get me motivated, make me feel better, but actually doing it is another matter. Having an awesome toddler to hang out with is obviously one way to make making the right choices easier. And I’ve also been getting a helping hand from Tea with Miss Beatrix’s #BashSAD challenge.

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I don’t feel sad this year – and that’s despite an October which so far has held more than a usual amount of sorrow (more on that another time). In fact I’m looking forward to embracing autumn – and even winter. There is so much in this life to enjoy, and I intend to make the most of it.

 

The Reading Residence