Detaching, shredding and a lack of monks

I had a devastating manic episode a few days ago and I’ve been doing my hermit thing since. It’s very tempting to go on Twitter and rant about politics but politics was one of the contributory factors to this particular episode and the subsequent burn out.

I’ve been detaching from the world and tweeting once a day to say that I’m still not engaging with people. I do this because sometimes you get a bit overwhelmed with mentions and direct messages asking how you are when all you need is a quietness.

While I’ve been detaching from Twitter I’ve also been detaching from the outside world to a certain extent. I haven’t been talking to many people (which suits me well) and I haven’t been watching much television (politics again) so I’ve been sitting listening to music and rereading some of my favourite books. I’m totally submerged into Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” as if it was the first time I’ve read it. I’ve bought a copy of Kafka’s Letters to Milena to dip into. My rats ate the last copy so I can, once again, relive his agonies and curse Milena.

Being a hardy north-easterner I put my duvet into storage about May and it stays off until about October. I’ve been shifting things around to fit it in somewhere and while I was doing that I found a pile of twenty or so greetings cards. I thought that the layers of dust were hiding a horde of memories that would spring to life in my mind and conjure up long past feelings in my heart and eyes but they didn’t. The cards were just words that could have been written to anyone by anyone. They didn’t stir memories but they did make me think why I’d clung on to them. I’m not sentimental and I think that I could have been holding on to them because I’d been convinced that when I opened them events and occasions from the past would pop out like some bizarre jack-in-the-box. I’ve just finished shredding them and have said goodbye to a pile of inked cardboard. The memories of that relationship (which are many, varied and risque) are still there they’re just in my head gathering dust instead.

This evening I’ve been talking to a friend and I noticed that the way that he uses language is quite different from the way I do. I ramble from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep and I’m lucky that my animal brood like the sound of my voice. I talk when there is often no need to talk. He is very spare with his words and I’d say the same thing in 10 times the volume and still not get to the point.

I have spent times when my words were more considered and sparse but that is way back more than half my life ago when I was living in the little house in the woods and working part of the time in a monastery. Perhaps I need monks in my life again or maybe all I need to do is read the Rule of St Benedict and get back to the values, spirituality and silence that was.

On being aimless…

I’m having some time off from social media, mostly Twitter, as I need to make some room in my head to feel less disenchanted with the world and less angry at people. I don’t feel that comfortable around people anyway and when I get to feeling the way I do now I really need to isolate myself a little more than usual and reassess things. Isolation can me very good for the soul.

Twitter is time consuming and it’s easy to get into an exchange with people that takes up too much time and, while I’m tempted to tell people fuck off and leave me alone at times, I respond politely. Well most of the time I respond politely.

In the past 24 hours or so I’ve been reasonably detached from social media and I’ve come to realise that I’m not using some of the coping techniques that have been successful in the past and I’m going to change things straightaway.

I used to read a book a day and when I went through a prolonged period where I found it very difficult to concentrate and retain information I got out of the habit and filled the time I used to spend reading with something else. In the past few months I’ve been reading regularly again and I know that I need to make time to create silent periods in my day when I can devote myself fully to whichever book it is that I’m reading.

I used to take a day off every week and have been out of that habit for a long time. It sounds strange to hear that someone who does not and cannot work has days off but we all need respite from our daily lives. I need to learn to ignore things that seem to be sent to distract me and spend the time doing something that I really love and being mindful.

When I first began my recovery from alcoholism nearly 24 years ago the GP I saw at the time gave me some fantastic advice. He told me to go out for a walk and take just enough money to get the bus home if I got tired. He further advised me to take a sandwich and something to drink so that I wouldn’t go into shops and end up back in the routine of everyday life. Once I had my sandwich, drink and bus fare I had to go out for a walk, not go anywhere and when I hadn’t been anywhere I could go back home. It took me ages to work out what he meant but when I finally did it I understood what that it was about learning to be aimless.

Life does not need to be chock full of purpose. It’s ok to waste time sat daydreaming or wandering about and it should not be deemed a guilty pleasure as you should never feel guilty about protecting yourself.

At least once a week I’m going to have a To Don’t list as opposed to a To Do list. I’m going to write the things I can leave for a day on it and enjoy not doing them. There will always be the things I have to do but To Do lists should be about the extra things we have to do not the ordinary and mundane tasks.

Tomorrow I’m not going to do any laundry, I’m not going to tweet and I’m not going to hoover the flat but what I am going to do is be aimless, mindful and relaxed.

No time to meditate?

I began to practice mindfulness around about 10 years ago. The consultant psychiatrist I was under the care of at the time was forever trying to get me to take up new ways of coping with depression associated with Manic Depression/Bipolar Disorder and I was forever trying to put him off. He knew that there was little chance of getting me to meditate because meditation was always associated with religion in my head (long story) and it was always a struggle. I, rather predictably, sighed and raised my eyes to heaven when he mentioned mindfulness and eventually agreed to try it as an experiment. He’d burned a CD for me with two guided meditations on it. He suggested, because I find sleep very difficult (another long story), that I try the lying down meditation towards bedtime. I was sceptical but promised that I’d try it and that I’d do it that night.

I remember switching the CD player on and being in dread of listening to 39 minutes of something I didn’t really want to do but I can’t remember the guided meditation coming to an end because I fell asleep. When I woke the next morning I realised that I’d had the best nights sleep that I’d had in years and that was enough to make me try the meditation a second time and to stay awake that time.

Mindfulness is not a relaxation technique (though that’s always been a good side effect for me), it is a way of being in the now. It places you in the second that you are living and not the one that has past or the one that has yet to come. It allows you to look back and learn from the past without living in it but also to look forward and plan without placing too much emphasis on future events. The technique is simple and anybody can learn enough about it to get some benefit from it. It’s more difficult to do when I’m manic but not impossible and always with a positive effect.

The guided meditations that I use are about concentrating on your body and knowing where each part of it is so that you can only focus on the now and what is happening in that time which is great but when you’re having a panic attack on a bus you can’t lie down in the aisle and go through a guided meditation – or not without the risk of getting sectioned anyway. Once you realise that you can kick start being mindful wherever you are then it all becomes really simple. My favourite way is to sip a drink and concentrate on how it feels in my mouth; the temperature, the texture, the taste and how it makes me feel. When I do that it is impossible to project out of the moment in any direction and it is less likely that I will be overwhelmed with anxiety. As I mentioned, one of the side effects for me is that I become more relaxed, so everything becomes just a little easier to cope with.

As you’d imagine, mindfulness is much easier to practice when I’m depressed and my mind offers less resistance but when I’m manic it is usually quite a different story. Recently though I’ve hit on a way of making manic energy more productive and being able to harness that through mindfulness – I bake bread. The kneading takes my excess energy and transforms it, as if by magic, into food which is wonderful but it also has a rhythm that takes over and becomes a mindful experience. The mania often does go on to develop into something nastier but for a while at least I can use the energy against itself. Sort of like judo for the mind, you use your opponent’s strength as a weakness.

Mindfulness isn’t a cure all and for some people it’s a doesn’t even come close to helping but, as has been proved to me, it’s well worth a shot. It’s something I’ve learned to build into my every day life for instance, when I go out with my camera I get lost in the taking of photos – that’s mindfulness and people probably do that without realising what it is. Meditation shouldn’t be about taking big chunks of your time in order to learn how to use time more wisely, it should fit in with your life and become a part of it and that is what mindfulness does. Try it – I dare you.

The University of Bangor in Wales have an excellent reputation in mindfulness, click here to see what they have to offer (includes guided meditation recordings).

How I learned to look beyond what people want us to see

I was talking recently to one of the staff at the Tenants Participation Unit at our local council. We were talking about a scheme we hope to introduce of a series of local experts to provide key contacts for those who need specific details about a certain block of flats or the section of a street on which that person lives. It’s a great idea, saves money, ticks a box on Cameron’s Big Society bumpf and, in reality, allows people to understand that it’s their knowledge of a community that makes it a community. The talk extended beyond that a little whilst we discussed the idea of mental health first aid and how dangerous it could be and how offensive I, as a person with a mental health problem, found it. We talked of how being a good neighbour was as important to those with invisible illness as those with very visible illnesses or age related problems. Neighbours often have an accurate insight into people with mental illness that they don’t know they have. They see people from day to day, week to week and can often accurately gauge how that person is in reality and that goes a long way into prevention of fear and discrimination.

I know how difficult I can be to like, let alone love, but my neighbours tend to cherry pick the bits about me that they do like. They rarely go as far as to ask me how I am but that’s a sign of the times – who really wants to know? They do often say they haven’t seen me for a while and have I been all right or knock on the door and have a chat. Simple things and the kind of ethos we’re trying to encourage in a subtle way. If you get to know someone as a person then their health problems become immaterial. They just become people who have bad times. You don’t have to have in depth knowledge of an illness or even understand it to any extent to be understanding.

I went to a Roman Catholic primary school. It was run by the Sisters of Mercy who lived in a huge house about half a mile down the road at the top of the street I lived in. I went on a tour there with other girls from my secondary school once and the all pervading memory is walking on a gang way above huge vats of steamy water whilst nuns of all ages slaved away washing the dirty laundry of every priest for miles around. It felt like a very cold and empty place in spite of all the steam and energy that was in evidence but I had in my head a memory that told me that there was love in that place even if you couldn’t see it. We saw nuns working hard for the glory of God in service of a sexist religion; the famous love of God didn’t come in to it, at least on the surface.

When I was smaller I was always getting into scrapes of one kind or another. I was always covered in bruises and was asked by my teachers more than once exactly how the bruises got there. The truth was if I didn’t bruise or cut myself going up the tree then I did when I fell out of it. I was and still am, the epitome of a tomboy.

When I was nine I chased my friend Jacqueline across the schoolyard. She swerved when we reached the brick built toilet block and I didn’t and ran into it head first. I learned that day I had a very tough skull and that you really do see stars if you hit your head hard enough. I rapidly developed an egg-sized lump in the middle of my forehead. I like to think I looked like an emerging unicorn but in reality I looked like a nine-year old girl with a big lump on her upper face. A crowd of children gathered around me whilst Jacqueline ran for a teacher and they scattered twice as fast as Jacqueline reappeared with Sister Mary Vincent.

Sister Mary Vincent was our headmistress, one of the aforementioned Sisters of Mercy and she ruled our school lives with a rod of forged steel. She was tall, thin and scary and she was walking towards me faster than the kids around me were running away. I expected her to shout at me but she just bent down, gently touched the lump and said quietly that she thought I should spend some time with her in her study. This was frightening stuff because a) she didn’t shout and b) I was going to have to sit in her study. That’s where she kept the canes.

Being a Catholic school we were taught to have love and understanding for those people we found difficult to love. It’s easy to love people that show us love and respect and defer to our superiority but it’s hard to even like those who constantly challenge our ability to tolerate them. Sister Mary Vincent was one of the people I found it difficult to like and it was a difficulty that tended to run through the whole school.

She sat me at a dark wood table on a bench with a cushion and a glass of squash ala 1960s milkman. A pile of suitably religious comics appeared with that week’s copy of the Bunty on top and served with a smile that said, “Read the Bunty”. She sat at her desk with her back to me writing. Occasionally she picked up the Bakelite phone on her desk and spoke to someone far away in a gentle voice. Every few minutes she turned to me and smiled, her whole face melting into a wonderful expression of love, care and concern. Then she would turn away and work a little more. I sat with her all afternoon and fell in love with her. She transformed from the stern woman who had to run a school whilst being dictated to by men who could never teach, ruled by a religion that, at it’s best, was contradictory into a woman who loved us as much as she loved God.

A year or so later she had a breakdown and had to leave the school. There was talk of how it was best, of how she may have snapped and hurt a child. Had anyone listened to children in those days they would have known she could not hurt any child because she found us all too precious, she loved us a great deal. All of us, even the ones that no one could even like let alone love.

As the years have passed I have come to realize that she taught me that day that everyone has hidden facets to their personality. It’s not always appropriate to show those facets to just anybody so we hide them. She has taught me that if we look beyond our prejudices then we are likely to find wonderful, warm, beautiful, loving people.

I can never forget her; I will always love her and just for touching me in that way her life was truly precious.

Spirituality – learning new ideas to cope with poor mental health

Having a mental health problem impacts strongly upon the whole of your life.  It’s not just about trying to turn poor mental health into good mental health it’s about developing a more positive attitude to all aspects of your health. It’s vital that the negative impact that poor mental health can have on physical well being is minimized, if possible and that physical illness doesn’t make poor mental health even worse.

By removing or reducing those elements that increase stress we can make improvements to our mental health or at least to the way we approach it.  Living through difficult illnesses can either maim you or make you.  Learning to grow because of problems as opposed to in spite of them means that you learn to roll with things and accept other challenges, whatever they may be, as they arise.  Some people apparently sail through life without a care and then suddenly they are hit by a problem; redundancies, divorce, death of someone close, illness etc. and have no means of coping.  I don’t think karma is necessarily about punishment but I do think it is about lack of investment into our spirituality.

A sense of spirituality cannot cure ills of any kind but it can give us a sturdier foundation from which to cope.  Spirituality isn’t about God, religion, ritual or giving oneself over to other people it’s about finding that place deep inside you that enables you not to give up.

Although I had practiced meditation from my late teens I had never thought of it as a particularly spiritual practice.  I, like a lot of other people, assumed that spirituality was a by-product of a belief in God or the outcome of following a religion.  As a result of this I fought against spirituality for a long time.  Other things that were going on in my life didn’t encourage spiritual growth.

Five or six years ago my consultant dared me to try Mindfulness.  I hummed and haahed about it until he challenged to me to try it as a kind of experiment.  He even provided the CD, which I still have, that contained the guided meditation.  Even I couldn’t refuse that offer.

For many years I have suffered from hypnophobia, a fear of sleep rooted in the threats of nuns in childhood who promised me that I’d die in my sleep and spend eternity in limbo if I didn’t say my prayers at night.  It means that sleep is difficult for me, impossible with sleeping pills at times.  Nothing has worked for any length of time.  The first time I tried the guided meditation I lay down on my bed, turned the CD player on and before I was ten minutes into the meditation I was asleep and stayed asleep for many hours.  Mindfulness is neither a relaxation technique nor an aid to sleep but it puts me in a place where I can get sleep that is peaceful and relaxed.

Mindfulness works on the principle that the only time we have to be alive is now.  Not the next second in the future or the second that has just passed but the second that is now.  We can look back at memories as long as we don’t live in the past.  We can plan for our futures as long as we don’t spend so much time there all we do is project.  It is a wonderful attitude and as a form of meditation easily practiced any time, any where without having to do anything very special at all.

As a result of embracing Mindfulness I became open minded enough to read the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, which is full of ideas that I would have previously dismissed as rubbish.  It’s not the first book I pick up when I need guidance but it has proved to be a valuable book for me.

One of my friends is a great motivator.  He has taught me to think again.  I would certainly have dismissed his efforts ten years ago even though I would have considered myself open minded.  He has taught me to write my blessings down when I need to be reminded of them so I can see how many there really are.  I haven’t had to do this for a long time.  He has taught me to not automatically assume I’m having a bad day and to let a little time pass before I make my mind up.  I have fewer bad days than I used to.  He has encouraged me to first speak of the good things that happen in my day before I speak of the bad things and almost by magic the bad events are reduced to the size they actually are and not the over inflated events I supposed them to be.  He has told me in no uncertain terms that there are times when I hide behind Bipolar Disorder and use it as an excuse for not doing things.  This is very true, sometimes I blame the way I feel on Bipolar Disorder when I’m really just having the odd off day or I want to opt out of coping.  People can change your life if you allow them to.

Another friend told me the story from the Tao of Pooh that describes Pooh and Piglet walking through the Hundred Acre Wood.  Piglet expresses his fear by saying, “What if one day a tree falls upon us?”  Pooh replies simply, “What if one doesn’t?”

My illness has not improved in the past five or six years.  In fact it has deteriorated.  Bipolar Disorder has a firm and dangerous grip on me.  What has changed, through the discovery that spirituality comes from within, is my attitude.  Same illness, different approach.

Today I am less likely to be suicidal. That speaks volumes.