What’s Your Pencil?

Image result for sharpened pencil

I will accept that my title looks grammatically incorrect; or at least like I’ve managed to forget a word. Bear with me, though, I really do mean what I’ve said (typed). 

A few months ago, I was sitting, having a work-related conversation with the wonderfully talented and always exuberant Phil Kingston. Within minutes, we realised that we were both Lamy fans. I explained that, because my writing is the way it is (small, not exactly artistic),  I require an extra-fine nib in order to render what I write legible. I handed my instrument to him, and Phil wrote a few lines with it. He quickly agreed with me that it was a beautiful writer, and we had a most pleasant chat about pens, and writing, and choosing an instrument.

 

I mentioned that I habitually use a fountain pen, except for my Morning Pages , which – for some reason – I choose to write on yellow legal pads in pencil. And, yes, I’m as particular about my pencils as I am about my pens. The one I favour for my Morning Pages is a beauty that is a black 4B that I got in the Science Gallery a while ago. It is just the write blend of soft and dark for me: Not so soft that it smudges easily, and not so hard that it writes too faintly.  

 

As Phil and I continued our chat, we mused about how our respective upbringings had influenced our choice of writing instruments. In the middle of all this, I suddenly realised something, and shared it with him. I’d been brought up in poverty by an abusive (psychopathic) father and a narcissistic mother.  I’d always loved writing – not just the intellectual, or creative, or academic element of it – but the actual, physical element of it as well.  As a young writer of about four, I remember bringing my pencil to my mother to be pared. She refused. There was ‘still plenty of writin’ left in it’, she had declared. Any time I wanted to sharpen my pencil, she would admonish me, and tell me I was being wasteful – which was a sin! – and I was to use the pencil until it was no longer possible to write with it.  

 

Of course, I internalised this message, and carried it with me into adulthood. It took until last August before I realised that I it didn’t serve me to believe that I was only ‘allowed’ to pare my pencils when their points were beyond usability. When I realised that I no longer needed to hold to that ancient belief, I abandoned it immediately. Since then, I have sharpened my pencil every time I have felt it necessary; I have allowed myself the tactile pleasure of using a pencil at its optimum point. It is bliss. Joyful, delightful, pleasurable.  

 

It’s a small thing – sharpening my pencil every time I want to, so it always feels good when I’m using it – but it has made me examine other habits and attitudes that were foisted on me by others, and which don’t serve me. I feel liberated beyond what might seem rational by this one small thing. 

 

So it’s really not an error when I ask  – ‘What’s your Pencil?’ What is the old belief or habit that you’re hanging on to that is not serving you, and is not aligned with what you want, and deserve, for yourself?

 

 

 

Some Lone Parenting Realities

Euro in Hand

Yesterday, the Irish Times reported that the number of poor mothers dying by suicide is on the rise. 

Privately, a friend who works in an economically-deprived area in Dublin, told me that in the past year, three lone mothers have died by suicide in that area.

Mothers who parent alone get the shitty end of the stick in this country. Lone parent families have the highest rates of consistent poverty in Ireland, according to the most recent SILC report (which you can read here). The vast majority of lone parent families are headed by women. There are barriers to education and paid employment – and the work women do in the home is completely discounted; it’s expected that we will

*cook

*clean

*make appointments for the children

*take the children to those appointments

*do the laundry

*do the garden (if we’re lucky enough to have one)

*organise the handyman (if we can’t do the DIY ourselves)

*top up the leap cards

*keep the car on the road (if we’re lucky enough to have one)

*organise drop-offs and pick-ups

*do drop-offs and pick-ups

*pay attention to every sign and symptom of our babies, children, teens so we’re on top of their mental health and physical health

*provide healthy, nutritious meals for our children

*clothe our children

*provide appropriate shelter for our children

*ensure that they are doing well at school

*fight for everything they require if they have any sort of additional need

*pay all the bills

*organise birthday parties

*find the money for cards and gifts for our children’s friends’ birthdays

*make time to spend with each of our children on their own

*read to our children

*take care of their cultural, sporting, and academic requirements

*make sure they take their medication

*keep an eye on who they’re friends with

*get to know their friends

*forget that third drink on a weekend night, in case one of the kids gets sick and you need to take them to the doctor / hospital

*turn down invitations because you don’t have / can’t afford childcare

*monitor the kids’ internet usage

 

This list is not exhaustive. In fact, it barely touches the tip of the iceberg of the things that mothers parenting on their own are expected to do – and judged and vilified for if they don’t, or don’t do it to someone else’s ridiculously high standards.

Is it any wonder an increasing amount of us are suicidal?

* If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can contact: Pieta House at 1800-247247, or Samaritans by telephoning 116123 for free, texting 087-2609090 or emailing jo@samaritans.ie or Aware: aware.ie; Tel: 1800-804848; Email: supportmail@aware.ie

Anxiety

Image result for the scream

Let me tell you about anxiety. Or, rather, let me tell you about my experience of anxiety. I’ve had anxiety for years, but didn’t know what it was until about two years ago. Then, I had the diagnosis, but didn’t realise the plethora of symptoms that could be attributed to it until the medication eased them. That’s right – I’m on medication for my anxiety, and have been for about a year. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted that before, because of the amount of stigma associated with being on medication. Still, in 2018. But I refuse to allow that to hold me back from speaking my truth. If I had asthma and needed an inhaler every day, would I be ’embarrassed’ or ‘ashamed’ or ‘shamed’ because of it? Probably not.

(As a brief aside, I love my medication. It doesn’t make me happy – it doesn’t make my life any better, it merely enables me to meet the life that comes at me without falling to pieces. It makes me functional. It restores me to myself. )

Anyway, even with medication, I still have anxiety, and even with the medication, it sometimes gets bad. Now, we all get a bit anxious. I accept that. But clinical anxiety is to ‘being a bit anxious’ as clinical depression is to ‘being a bit sad’.  Here’s what it’s like for me:

I wake up in the morning and it feels like I have something heavy – like a cannon ball – sitting in my solar plexus: It feels like it’s pinning me to the bed. I am paralysed by it. I lie there, trying to identify the source of the fear. The following sentences literally form themselves in my brain:
‘What have I failed at?’
‘What do I have to do today that’s terrifying me?’
‘What is today bringing me that I won’t be able to do?’

I know that I generally feel a bit better if I’m upright. It can take me up to two hours to cajole myself out of bed, though. So I get the added delight of telling myself:
‘This is you, doing nothing.’
‘This is you, failing. Right here, right now, this is exactly what you’re doing. Failing.’
‘You’re useless. You’re doing nothing. You’ll never get anything done.’

‘Just give it up. Give up everything you’re trying to do because you’re not doing it! Just STOP! Stop everything because you are nothing.’

I’m getting better at ignoring that voice, though, or of dismissing it when it speaks to me.

In addition to the shit I tell myself, I find breathing difficult when my anxiety is bad. I can go a minute or so without breathing, and not notice. Clearly, this is not a good thing. Especially when I realise I’ve been holding my breath, and then I bring my attention to it, and run the risk of inducing a panic attack! Really not a good look. (Panic attacks are evil.) So, I’ve got better at just breathing Like A Normal Person (for those who aren’t familiar, Normal People are people who aren’t me!).

Then there’s the wasps in my head. Not actual wasps, you understand, but that’s what it feels like, sometimes; that there is a whole swarm of angry wasps inside my skull, and I just can’t stop them buzzing, flying, stinging, the inside of my head.

Sometimes, for the sake of variety, my thoughts will try to emulate barbed wire on the inside of my head, rather than wasps. They’d hate me to get bored. They are hard to deal with, I’ll admit it. But I’m working on catching them and dismissing them before they multiply. I’m not always successful – but, then, they’re not always that bad.  A soothing distraction can be good – taking up my knitting, or doing a bit of colouring (as I mentioned before, I use kids’ colouring books because ‘mindful’ ones crank my anxiety levels up), or sticking. I also love devotional music – I prefer Hindu mantras – but devotional music comes (I feel) from a very special place, so devotional music of any persuasion touches me. Get on to You Tube, and see what works for you.

 

Recently, I have found that it really works for me if I forget about compiling a list of things to do – and give myself just one, achievable task to get through in a day. Some days (like today), it might take me all day to get it done. Funny thing is, that once I have that ticked off, I often feel like doing something else. So I’ll do something else, and that feeds a sense of achievement I hadn’t expected.

I’m learning to be gentle with myself. ‘Speak Love to yourself,’ my friend Kuxi wrote to me today. (When I’m bad, I can’t speak. I know, I know, it should be a national holiday, but it just feels like it’s too hard – so I send emails, or text messages. I know it’s important not to isolate myself too much.)

 

Also today, for the first time ever, I caught myself thinking

‘It’s going to be okay. You’ve lived through this before. You’ve lived through worse. You’ll bounce back – you always do.’

And the relief was amazing. I was able to recognise that I’m more unwell than I had previously admitted to myself, and reach out to a variety of people who can help – friends, my supervisor at uni, my doctor.

 

But the most important reaching out I did was to myself.  I was kinder, gentler, more understanding of myself this time around than ever before. I’m hoping it’ll ease up soon, and the next time it’s bad, I’ll be more aware and reach out even sooner. If you have anxiety, what works for you?

 

 

 

In-between Days

InBetweenDaysTeaserLrg

There have been many thoughtful blog posts, and posts on social media recently for those of us who do not have family, and for whom Christmas is not a pleasant, or a happy time. For those of us for whom abuse was a part of our every day experiences of childhood, with no days off for Christmas – or even for whom Christmas made the abuse worse – Christmas is a time we’d rather avoid.

 

All that said, however, many of us who have fraught relationships with toxic or dangerous families, or for whom Christmas is tinged with grief, have wonderful friends. These wonderful, thoughtful, friends often remember us, and invite us to join with them on December 25th, and 26th. Then we find ourselves, on the 28th, or so, alone with our thoughts. If we’re lucky, we will have plans for New Year’s Eve. But there are the days between Xmas day and NYE that can be even more difficult than the days of ‘celebration’ themselves. The week that lots of other people humourously refer to as ‘the lost week’ where they don’t know what day it is, and there’s still mountains of festive food knocking about can be really difficult for those of us who haven’t felt we have much to celebrate.

It’s a week for concerted self-care. For this In-between Week, I have a list of things that you can pick and choose from to make yourself feel better.

 

  1. Get off social media for  24 hours (be sure to post in advance that you’re going to do this, so people don’t worry for your safety!). I love social media, but there’s a lot going on there at the moment that might make you feel more alone.
  2. Join a park run. You don’t have to actually, run, but it can be good for you to feel your body, and feel yourself in it. Park runs are fun, free, and you don’t need to register. Just turn up.
  3. Practice some self-appreciation. See yourself as a container for receiving good, and fill that container! By ‘appreciation’, I don’t mean ‘value’. Trying to value yourself often results in little more than either feeling squeamish, or like you’re trying to puff up your ego. Honest appreciation for what is present and true will boost your confidence in a powerful and authentic way. Honest appreciation is specific, both in what it is appreciating, and how it words that appreciation. Remember, appreciation is a gift you receive into your heart.
  4. Paint. Even if you don’t, do.
  5. Put some thought into buying a beautiful gift for someone – something you know they’d love, but would never get for themselves. If you don’t fancy braving the crowds in the sales, do the shopping online. In this exercise, though, that ‘someone’ is you.
  6. Plant something. Tend it, and look forward to it blooming. Give it what it needs, when it needs it. If you don’t  know how to grow things, read up, or ask a green-thumbed friend. Treat it the way you should have been treated.
  7. Every time your brain presents you with memories that you don’t need, thank them for showing up, but tell them it’s time to go.
  8. Make sandwiches, or buy biscuits and / or chocolate, and drop them into a soup run. There are several organised throughout the week and they are always grateful to receive donations.
  9. Download Borrowbox, and check out an audiobook. This app works even when the library is closed. There is something lovely about having a book read to you.
  10. Make a list of the films that are the celluloid version of comfort food to you. Watch them.
  11. Read some contemporary poetry, or get on YouTube and enjoy some spoken-word artists.
  12. Have a guilt-free duvet day.
  13. Print off some kids’ colouring pages from the Internet (unless you have a colouring book to hand) and colour them in. Don’t worry about the lines. Just enjoy yourself.
  14. Change the sheets on your bed.
  15. Go through your wardrobe, chuck out anything that doesn’t fit / you don’t like / you haven’t worn for at least three months. Remind yourself of what’s in there that you actually like, and that you know looks well on you.

A Good Bad Day

Spiral

 

Today was Not A Good Day.

 

The seeds for today not being A Good Day were sown last night, just after 6pm. That’s when the first thing went wrong. This morning, we were up and had left the house before 7.30. By 9.00am, the second thing had gone wrong. Things kept going wrong until 9.41am. By 10am, seven things had gone wrong – including the first thing that went wrong last night. By 10.13am, we thought we were back on track. Then something else went wrong. This is Thing Number Eight. It was too much.

 

Panic.

 

I couldn’t. I repeated that about 14 or 15 times ‘I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!’

 

Tears. Sobbing. Overwhelm.

 

The kindness of strangers.

 

The unexpected kindness of strangers.

 

The compassion of those who chose not to look the other way.

 

The unexpected compassion of strangers who chose to help.

 

The ninth thing went wrong. The ninth thing going right had been contingent on at least the eighth thing going right.

I was upset that the ninth thing went wrong. I knew I’d let my eldest daughter down because the ninth thing went wrong. But nobody died. We were all safe.

Later, the day (sort of) got back on track. I reflected on The Bad Day and realised that it had, actually, been a Good Bad Day: It took eight things before I felt overwhelmed. Eight. A year ago, one of those things would have overwhelmed me.  A year ago, one of those thing would have incapacitated me. A year ago, I would still – twelve hours later  – not have recovered. Today, it took less than an hour.

Today, I listened to what the voice in my head was saying. As I cried in the car after dropping my girls to school, I heard it. It said ‘I feel like a failure. I hate feeling like a failure.’ For the first time ever, it was saying ‘I feel like a failure’ and not ‘I am a failure.’

For all that they are real and valid, feelings are feelings; feelings aren’t facts. I was able to hear that I was acknowledging how I felt, rather than telling myself an absolute. This is progress.

 

A year ago, I’d have spun down a spiral that is hugely difficult to spin back up. In fact, I’ve never spun back up – I’ve only ever managed to crawl back up; slowly, on my hands and knees. Today, I was able to talk myself back from the first step on the spiral.

I felt dispirited, I felt like I had not won Wednesday, I felt frustrated, I felt powerless, I felt I had let my kids down. But I also felt like I could recover.

And I did.

Small victories, but victories none the less – and I have learned to celebrate my wins where I find them. Or where they find me.

Several things went wrong for me today – but they didn’t defeat me, the way they would have a few months ago. I’m learning. I’m learning self-compassion. I’m learning that sometimes, things just happen, and they’re not my fault. I’m learning that I don’t have to beat myself up when life doesn’t go according to plan. That’s what made today a Good Bad Day.

 

 

Colour Me Delighted

A few years ago, I went to visit my friend, June. I wanted to bring her a gift, but rejected the obvious – wine, flowers, chocolates – in favour of a colouring book. She was delighted.

About a year later, ‘mindful’ colouring books, and ‘adult’ colouring books became a ‘thing’.

I liked the idea of grabbing myself a colouring book or two and calming myself with a bit of colouring. The first one I bought was full of mosaics. It drove me mad. There were so many little bits of it. It was abandoned.  I got another. Its pages were filled with intricate pictures awaiting colour. I couldn’t give them what they were waiting for. They remained monochrome.

The pages of the ‘mindful’ and ‘adult’ colouring books that I bought, or considered buying, filled me with anxiety. I could feel it rising. The sections were too small. They didn’t scream ‘fun’, they screamed ‘task’. I have enough tasks I was looking for something to enjoy – in a similar way to how I enjoy knitting. It is repetitive, meditative, and soothing. These colouring books were not stirring the same emotions.

Then I remembered Kalkitos, and how much I’d enjoyed that, as a child.  I also loved stickers, and using them to make pictures with. I couldn’t find any Kalkitos, but I did find a sticker book for adults. It was filled with tiny flower-stickers, and other tiny stickers. I was tempted, but couldn’t part with £12.99 to buy a book that didn’t fill me with excitement.

Then, I had a brainwave. Why was I so hung up on adult versions? Hadn’t I enjoyed colouring books as a child? So, why was I looking at adult colouring books?

I came home with this:

 

Colouring Book

Which had the added bonus of these:

Stickers #2

I was delighted. This little book, and the stickers in it, filled me with joy, and anticipation, and excitement.

 

Colouring might well be a good tool for improving your mental health. Like any other tool, however, you need to make sure you have the right one. Don’t feel you need a ‘grown-up’ version of something that used to bring you joy when you were a child. Think of comfort food; if a toasted cheese sandwich was what made you feel safe and loved when you were little, then avocado toast with a sprinkling of pink Himalayan salt and a light dusting of cracked black pepper isn’t going to revive that feeling.  Go with what it feels right to use, rather than what you think you should be using.

 

 

 

 

World Mental Health Day

Mental HealthToday is World Mental Health Day – a day when we’re supposed to reflect on our own mental health, and how we care for it.

I think that World Mental Health Awareness Day might be a more appropriate name, but I don’t get to decide these things. I suppose the fact that the day is named and acknowledged at all means that there is awareness brought to mental health.  Not so long ago, people in Ireland didn’t mention mental health at all. It was stigmatised almost as much as being an unmarried mother. And that’s saying something.

Sadly, both states – being a lone mother, and having mental health difficulties – are still stigmatised in today’s Ireland. It’s no wonder that so many women who parent alone report having mental health difficulties. As a proud member of the steering group of S.P.A.R.K., I conducted research among our members and will be presenting my findings at our First National Conference on November 3rd, next.

Campaigns such as the Green Ribbon Campaign   have certainly helped get people talking, but it’s not enough to get adults talking to each other about how they are feeling. We need to give our children the language to talk about their emotions, too, and – just as importantly – we need to listen. I am often struck by how the reaction to our high rates of suicide among young men, our response is to encourage them to talk. I honestly feel that that’s a case of ‘too little, too late’. As a nation, we spend their entire formative years telling our children to ‘shut up’, to ‘be quiet’, to ‘speak when they’re spoken to’, to ‘mind their own business’ when they ask questions, to do things ‘because I say so’, to ‘stop crying’ when they are upset etc. etc. How can we, then, reasonably expect these same children – when they are teenagers and adolescents – to talk about how they are feeling?

 

I must also point out that it’s all very well encouraging people to have conversations, to open up about their mental health, and to stop hiding how they really feel, but it’s a bit irresponsible if there isn’t also information around how to receive and react to the information once it has been expressed. What should you do or say to someone who reveals, in the course of a conversation, that they do want to die? Or even that they are teetering on the edge of a depression? Or that their anxiety is so bad that they aren’t sure they’ll be able to make it home from work?

 

Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems we have with regard to mental and emotional health and their effective treatment is access to appropriate supports. In Ireland, a child in acute crisis (eg at risk of dying by suicide) could be waiting months to be seen by a member of the CAMHS – the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. That’s if they’re lucky. Thankfully, Pieta House will see those who are suicidal much, much quicker. Adult services aren’t much better – with just six sessions of ‘talking therapy’ being offered to medical card holders in crisis; preceded, of course, by a good long wait on a waiting list. For those who would benefit from therapies such as CBT or DBT, a catchment area lottery applies. You may or may not be offered a treatment that has good success rates for your particular difficulty if it is not provided by the HSE in your area. This is hardly a person-centric model of care.

 

Even with a sympathetic GP, the help and support vista around mental health is rather grim.  GPs often have little to offer beyond chemical intervention (pills don’t suit everyone, and the side-effects can be horrific; including increased anxiety and suicidal ideation), and general advice to exercise, drink less alcohol and caffeine, and avoid stressful situations.

I’m not saying anything new. I’m not saying anything you don’t already know. I’m just bringing attention (again) to the dire state of mental health services and care in Ireland, and the damage lack of access to care brings to the lives of those suffering.