Reading to scare you while very pregnant: This changes everything (Naomi Klein)

So I have, while heavily pregnant with my first baby, been reading ‘This Changes Everything’ by Naomi Klein (here be affiliate links, fyi) and I have to say it is simultaneously the most terrifying, and hopful book I have read about Climate Change (by which I mean it’s the only book I have read about climate change so far – I plan to change this!).

As I blogged about just after Christmas, the closer I get to having my baby, the more I worry about the world I am bringing him into. I look around and feel like society as we have designed it right now isnt good enough. It doesn’t work well for so many people. In the UK if you have a mental health problem, a disability, if you are poor or from a marginalised community, your opportunities are automatically limited by the many punative systems we have designed.

The book was written in 2014, and I am at least one book behind now, so I have some catching up to do. But I am glad I have made a start on better educating myslef about what can be done.

I think what I like about Klein’s book, so far, is that she positions the fight against climate change within the fight against many forms of social injustice, so that building a society that can address climate change will also mean building a society that works better for everyone. I think this is the big message I will be taking away from this book. If you have not read this already (and if you are interested in, or worried about climate change you probably have already!) I suggest thinking about opening this one up.

I also make art. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

More thoughts on mental health in the theatre – point me in the direction of better stories.

IMG_20190322_163801271

Just so you know chaps, Spoilers ahead…

Two weekends ago I went to see the play Equus with a friend of mine. I don’t want to turn this blog into a ‘review of psychological plays’ blog, or indeed give the impression that I am more cultured than I am, always off to the theatre. The reality is more sitting in bed watching telly with my partner and cats rather than glamorous outings to the theatre. However I do have some more thoughts on this issue after seeing this play.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on Cypress Avenue by David Ireland (which was on at the Royal Court Theatre) but now I can’t seem to find the blog post, only the title – did anyone see the text? – it was a good post (even if I do say so myself) but wordpress seems only to have saved the title. I don’t know what happened, and I don’t think I’m going to re-write that post. Basically by thoughts were: was very funny, and probably has a lot to say about the legacy of violence in Northern Ireland. It’s the kind of play that middle class people  who are mostly untroubled by violence or poverty (I say this being a middle class person) come out of saying things like ‘shocking’, and ‘very powerful’. However from the point of view of talking about mental health, it’s really problematic. I’m really fed up with the ‘traumatised man goes mad and kills his whole family narrative’, it’s time for the ‘person goes through trauma and then turns that experience into something positive for them and their community’ narrative’, or the ‘person goes through trauma, and it’s pretty horrible, but they end up ok, and don’t kill anyone narrative.’ So that’s a summary of what that was about – I am sorry if you ended up seeing a blog post with a title and no content (especially after I claimed I was going to be a bit more consistent with my blogging again).

Cypress Avenue was a relatively new play compared to Equus, which was written by Peter Shaffer in 1973. I liked this one better, performed at the Stratford Playhouse, as I will explain, but I have different issues with this one. So basically it’s a play about a boy who blind’s six horses with a spike, which was a real world event in the 1970’s. Apparently the playwright wanted to think about what would drive a person to do such a thing. The story is of a boy who has built a vivid inner mental world that results in the blinding horses situation. It’s quite an intellectual play, based on a psychoanalytical perspective that ultimately manages to tie (because it’s freudian after all) everything back to some sexual event. I’m being a bit glib and a bit brief here but that’s the jist of it – I enjoyed the play and think it’s worth seeing/ reading. There were some really wonderful physical performances by the actors, and it very much treats the young man as a person, as a human being in pain, not as some kind of monster. I liked it for that. I also like that it kind of raises the question of whether it is right to take away someone’s belief system, just because it does not align with the majority view, although it does not answer this question (I am not sure that it could).

But here’s my problem with it. Many times through the play we hear that ‘the boy is in misery’ but we don’t actually see much of that on stage. So it’s a bit of sanitised view of that misery, and mostly we just have to take the word of the ‘professionals’ on the stage that this is the case. The boy has built an elaborate belief system around horses, and he then goes on to violate that belief system by attempting a sexual act in the stable (the symbolic Temple of Equus). The whole play basically treats mental illness as a puzzle – if you can just solve the puzzle then you will fix the person. I just don’t think it works like that in real life for many people. It’s an intellectual approach to mental health that I don’t think really respects the kind of pain and distress that people live with and go through. Many people who experience mental health problems (including myself) haven’t built elaborate belief systems that can be analysed and ‘solved’ in this way. Many people have been through understandable trauma, or live difficult, stressful lives, or are bullied and belittled on a regular basis or made to feel by society that they are ‘wrong’ in some fundamental way. It’s not a complicated secret to them where their pain comes from, what is complicated is how to alleviate that pain. For most people experiencing mental distress – it’s not a puzzle that can be solved and fixed, it’s an ongoing, day by day experience that they continue to endure. Understanding your own story can be the start of a healing journey, but it’s rarely the whole solution.

So, I still think we need better stories about mental health. However, as I confessed to at the beginning of this post, I am someone who mostly sits around with her partner and cats watching telly, it’s very likely that I have missed them. I would very much appreciate it if anyone has any good recommendations for plays, films, or books that give a more nuanced picture of mental health. Drop your recommendation in the comments – at some point I will write a post about the results.

Swimming the distance: mental health as a endurance pursuit

IMG_20180114_141236_193

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may (or may not!) know that I’m currently training for a long distance swim in June. I’ll be swimming 5K, which is just over 3 miles (not an insubstantial distance for a swimmer), in lake Windermere during the Great North swim in June. At the moment I’m a bit concerned that I’ll be pulled out of the water half way through as I’m a little slow, but I have a bit more time to train and have been putting the effort in. Last year I swam a 2 mile event in about 1 hour and 20 minutes so if I can up my pace a bit and keep it going I should be ok, but I have the nerves all the same. I am already fitter than I was for last years event, but the distance is longer so on balance I am probably not as far ahead of myself as I would like to be.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been putting in a session in the gym one evening a week after work, as well as the swims. It’s a bit awkward to swim before or after work as the timings of the appropriate swim sessions don’t quite fit with my commute, and I don’t have enough discipline to quite force them to work! I’m trying to build up my stamina in just being able to do the same uncomfortable thing, mostly on the elliptical machine, for extended periods of time. I am concentrating on building up endurance and stamina, not so much speed. That is a gradual game. Little by little I get a bit stronger. Little by little each time I go a bit further. While at the gym a few weeks ago I was thinking about how the same principle applies to many of the other things I’ve been doing. I’ve been making the same film for at least 4 years now, and slowly I accumulate new bits and pieces for that until suddenly it starts to look like something that makes sense as a whole.

I think that working on my own mental health has been a similar process. I have a stressful day job. In the past few years I had some considerable anxiety about a range of things, and a bit of depression tagged along with that. Living like that is really tiring. Getting physically fitter now is probably really helping with that, but that has come as part of a general effort towards a healthier way of living at home. We now eat predominantly (but not exclusively) healthy plant based food, and have been doing so for over a year, but it took some time to work out how to make that work for us. I started working part time last year, dropping one day to enable me to swim and make things, which was quite a big little step in the right direction.

I wouldn’t say that I now spend all my time walking around in a state of ecstatic energetic creative contentment. But little by little, I think my ability to endure for the less enjoyable stuff of life, and look past it to the next fun thing is growing. Mental health isn’t a sprint to the finish line, it’s a long distance game.

On building a complicated relationship with gratitude

I wanted to write a quick post about something that has been troubling me for a few days. I was watching a YouTube video the other day that I thought was on personal finance but turned out to be on ‘manifesting wealth’ using the law of attraction philosophy popularised by the book The Secret (have not read it, and I don’t plan to). In this video, (which I cannot find the link to and don’t want to promote anyway) a very attractive wealthy looking woman explained that you needed to behave gratefully and respectfully towards the universe if you wanted to be successful in life. The Universe is basically an authoritarian Victorian patriarch handing out sweeties to the most pious and well behaved among us. Apparently.

For some reason this just really annoyed me. Most of the people I know who are successful have got there through differing combinations of luck, various forms of privilege, and hard graft. Many of them (but not all!) are very grateful for their success, but it was, for most of them, the work that got them there. I think the universe, in it’s infinite beauty and chaos, (and working on the unlikely assumption that it has some form of unifying consciousness) has better things to do that to check in which my savings rate and make adjustments according to my gratitude. I just don’t think it cares. It has better things to do. Like build planets and ignite stars. To scatter about the raw materials of life itself.

Having worked in both psychology and mental health I have also been aware for some time of positive psychology idea that keeping track of the things you are grateful for may help ameliorate symptoms of anxiety and depression. This was also something I was uncomfortable with because when you have anxiety or depression that is disruptive of your ability to do or enjoy things, I think you legitimately have a something to be really pissed off about. Telling people in that situation to sit and count their blessings feels patronising and a failure to grasp the severity of the situation.

That said, since the beginning of January I have actually been making more of an effort to take stock of the things I am grateful for. Things like having a boyfriend who cooks me lovely vegan food when I am sick, or being able to swim outside in the silvery UK sea. I can afford to reduce my hours at work in order to indulge my creative parts, when most people cannot. I have been having fertility treatment for about 5 months now (which is kind of rough) and I have just found out that I have access to more options than I expected on the NHS, and I am grateful for that too. And you know, I have been feeling kind of better lately….

Taking the rail replacement bus

IMG_20180114_141236_193

This morning I went swimming with my sister for the first proper training session in preparation for swimming in the Great North Swim in June. I have signed up to swim 5k (which is just over 3 miles), which is the furthest distance I will have swam. Eventually I want to work up to swimming a 10k, which is a marathon style length for swimmers. We swam a mile, and it was pretty tough going. I think it will take 2 swim sessions a week, and an additional session in the gym a week to build my stamina between now and then. So we have work to do. I will try to keep track here I think.

On my journey there this morning, one of my trains was replaced by a rail replacement bus. I normally travel on the train, and which is a relatively direct route. The bus takes a less direct route, and as a consequence I was able to see parts of London that I do not normally see. London is a huge city that has developed and evolved over time, slowly swallowing up towns and villages as it expand outwards. This process has left a patchwork of buildings of different styles, sizes and ages, with different parts of the outer edges of the city having distinct atmospheres and styles of their own. While it took me longer than i expected to get to the pool, I was great to spend some time looking at these bits of this city that I do not always feel at home in.

It got me thinking a bit about doing things differently, or what I may try to do differently last year. Over that last year and a half I have been working on just trying to finish things, which has been helpful in getting me to a place where I feel my creative work has purpose. I have also begun to really appreciate that doing things slowly, and building things over time, is actually the better way for me. I can be comfortable with this. However some of the work has felt, if not trivial, at least a bit light, or thin. In the last few months I have begun working on some pieces that are emotionally more close to home. I’ve been avoiding finishing bits of work like this in the past, as putting it out there is a bit anxiety provoking. When you already have anxiety, adding in more sources of anxiety is a bit of thing. So this year, I will be trying, gently, to push my self a bit more in that direction. Stay tuned to see how that goes…

Is there anything you’ll be having a go at doing differently this year?

You are here by Jenny Lawson

So being ill can have an up side sometimes. I’ve been unwell with some awful head cold [wo]man flu and haven’t been able to do much work. I’ve been mostly sleeping, drinking honey and lemon, and watching telly, with a little web surfing on the side. The web surfing turned out to be a little too exciting for my ill brain and I’ve had to wait a few days before I was able to form a coherent thought about this.

I came across Jenny Lawson’s memoir Furiously Happy, at least a year ago through one of those Amazon ‘and you may also like’ recommendations.  I loved it, having been bought up in the country with my own bunch of eccentrics, and from there I went on to read Let’s pretend this never happened, which I also loved. These books are very funny, and great books for anyone who has ever wanted to hide under a table at a public event (or regularly finds themselves taking a ‘time out’ in the office loo). Earlier in the week I wasn’t very well and couldn’t do much more than sit in bed and surf the internet. I spent some of that time diving into the Bloggess website and it was the first time I was able to have a really good read about her colouring book You are Here.

I really think this post is worth looking at for anyone who uses arty creative things as part of their efforts to manage mental health. Jenny Lawson writes vividly about her own arts practice (I have no idea if she would call it that, but her drawings are works of art) continually using drawing and doodling as a way of channeling negative or distressing thoughts or emotions. She is releasing a colouring book based on these drawings, alongside some short stories that work with the drawings, and what a beautiful thing it is (at least it looks that way from the pictures – the physical book won’t be available for a few months). Just go and look at the sweeping curves and swirling lines of some of these drawings. I really love how these drawings are intricate, and delicate, effective in evoking fairytale and myth. Somehow exciting and soothing to look at at the same time. I’ve ordered my copy, and I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying getting creative with this set of drawings. Or just owning them. Anyway, go and look. Now.

Don’t for a minute think about stopping you lovely bunch of creatives

p1000345

[EDIT: So I had a nice formal sounding title for this post, but then I went and changed it because this feels better in getting across what I want to say]

I was procrastinating before work this morning and read this article from George Monbiot on the Guardian website about neoliberalism and loneliness and mental health. I thought it was an interesting article and feel he has a number of valid points about how the two things are connected. I was particularly interested in the scientific work he referenced about the link between stress, pain and physical contact. Anyway it’s a good article – I’m not going to re-write what he says here – go check it out for yourself.

The article this morning happened to come to my attention just two days after I had stumbled onto the work of Prof. Paul Crawford from the University of Nottingham after I me him during a day job event. Paul has been suggesting some really interesting ideas about how we enable people to use arts, humanities and creativity in looking after their own mental health and in their recovery from mental illness. He has a particularly interesting ideas around some form of collective healing through arts and humanities. He’s recently published a book called Health Humanities on the subject with Brian Brown, Charley Baker, Victoria Tischler and Brian Abrams. I’ve not read it yet but I’ve downloaded it and will be putting it on the list.

Both Crawford’s talk and Monbiot’s article have lead me to thinking a bit more about our culture and the role of arts in it. I feel over the last decade and probably for longer there has been this odd political positioning of people who are ‘Artists’ who get to do the making of things, and the rest of us as consumers, who are consumers who are meant to buy things. And things have become very easy, and very cheep to buy. This feels like quite a different situation to the one my parents and grandparents grew up in. My grandfather would probably not have called himself an artist, but he could make anything, and it was common for people to make things for each other, like jam. I like jam.

When I was younger I think I had quite a dismissive attitude towards people who made things (unless they were one of those special, magical, serious people, a proper artist), especially people who made things in groups or clubs. I was a child of the 80s, and while I grew up in the countryside without much stuff, the prevailing political climate was one of stuff worship (and not hand made stuff either). I’ve completely changed my mind about this. For people to gather together to share their making, like a meal, or to make things together, like kitting or music, or in staging a play, is a profoundly creative act. To be connected to each other through our creativity is a profoundly human one.

I think there is a backlash towards this at the moment, and it is thrilling. The internet used to be full of cats. Now it is full up of people having a go at being artists. And crafters and cooks and gardeners and poets. And people making Jam. It is full of artists cheering on other artists. A community or creatives supporting other creatives. Brilliant. Don’t for a minute think about stopping you lovely bunch of creatives.

A bit more on ‘On not being able to paint’

I’ve been digging into Marion Milner’s book ‘On not being able to paint’ and have been really enjoying this. The book describes Milner’s efforts in trying to learn how to paint, and she takes a psychoanalytic perspective on this. I’m no expert in psychoanalysis and have definitely had to re-read a few bits and pieces to get a better appreciation of their meaning. Even so I have been enjoying the book as an interesting and thoughtful meditation on the creative process and what that can mean for the creative individual. This week I’ve been particularly struck by this quote:

“It now looked as if some of the spiritual dangers to be faced in this matter of coming to see as the painter sees were concerned with the transfiguration of the external world; in fact with a process of giving to it something that came from within oneself, either in an over whelming of a reviving flood. Also this process could be felt as a plunge – a plunge that one could sometimes do deliberately, but which also sometimes just happened, as when one falls in love.”

Last week I struggled to even begin to describe the quality of the light that was created through the stained glass windows of La Sagrada Familia. I think also I was  in complete awe of the sheer scale of that creative effort. I think in part this came from knowing the personal, internal effort that would have been involved in committing the vision of something on that scale to paper, and to see it built, and the vulnerability that would require. This is possibly why this quote has spoken to me this week.

Lessons on listening

img_0091

I’ve been thinking about what to put into this post for a week but have struggled a bit in working out what it is I’m trying to say exactly. I suspect there will be more than one post as I try to tease this out.

Over the last 5 years one of the most significant things I’ve learned is the importance of listening. In all of the important roles I’ve adopted at different times (researcher, manager, volunteer, artist, partner, daughter, sibling, friend) listening has been an important part of what I do (most of the time more so than any of the ‘talking’, truth be told). There has been a growing public conversation about the importance of talking in the mental health world in the last few years. There have been significant efforts to encourage people to reach out, to talk, and these are really important. There are multiple platforms through which we are able to connect, digitally or otherwise, but often little thought is given to the ‘listening’ that this assumes. For someone to reach out and actually find some comfort there needs to be a Listener. I think for these efforts to be truly successful we need to develop not just the capacity of our community to talk, to express themselves, but also the capacity to listen. And ‘just listening’ isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Listening well is actually an important skill. I once had a boss who huffily told me ‘pah, listening. What is listening? I listen’. In doing so interrupted me mid-sentence and failed to hear the complete thought I had at that moment about the importance of being heard. This was not a good example of listening. During the past few years I have done some training on my listening skills, and volunteered for a time to have long, careful conversations with people who are suicidal. Here are a few things I have learned:

  1. Everyone has one infuriating friend who will continually tell you the same story over and over, or make the same point over and over. Think for a moment. Is it possible that this person feels like they have never truly been heard?
  2. Listening well is an act of mindfulness. Truly listening to someone requires you to be present in the moment. It requires you not to sit there agonizing over what clever witty thing you are going to say next.
  3. It’s ok not to know what to say next. Silence can sometimes be your friend.
  4. It’s ok to ask ‘I know you are going through something. Are you ok? do you want to have a cup of tea, a little talk?’
  5. It’s ok not to have any answers, to not know what to advise. Often people, both in their good times, and in their bad times, aren’t asking for advice, they are asking to be heard.
  6. Listening well, listening carefully to a person without a personal agenda, is an act of profound kindness.

On this blog I talk a lot about creativity and arts practice, and maybe this post seems a little left of field. But in my own arts practice I have found listening to be an important part of it.If you listen to other people well you will inevitably end up learning something interesting about the world around you, or about yourself. Listening is fundamentally rewarding, in that it adds richness and depth to your understanding of the human experience.

On finishing things, or, I made a thing, eep!

When I started writing blog posts about the connection between creativity and mental wellbeing I initially thought that I would write one, let it loose, see how it flew. Then I had an idea for another one, but I thought I would run out of steam on this thought stream pretty quickly, but then had another idea, and then another. So far each little thought seems to lead to another little thought, that is just enough of an idea to write a blog post about. Go figure.img_0101

Most of the things I blog about in this ‘series’ are just my ideas about theories that I know of and that I find useful in making sense of myself, and of my experiences. If working as a researcher in psychology and medicine and mental health for the last 12 years has taught me anything it is this: there are many splendid varieties of ‘human’. What works for one person will not work for the next, or will work but in combination with a third thing. For many people it is possible to manage their wellbeing through a healthy diet, a decent amount of exercise and a little enjoyable down time. It doesn’t seem to be quite enough for me, there needs to be something….else.

One of my blocks over the last few years has been in finishing things. I don’t know if this is a typical ‘scanner problem’ but I am pretty good at getting dug into a project, and then, about half way through there seems to be another project that I need to start, so I do. And then another. And another. The banner picture on my blog at the moment is a blanket I made for my sister. It took a whopping 7 years to finish that baby off. 7 years. And I was so proud of it that I took pictures of it before I handed it over to use on the banner of this blog. So in contrast to that, this little guy in the picture above only took around six months. And look, he lights up…

img_0100

Many of my ongoing projects are quite ambitious, there is a play, a film and a novel, and now a book about art and wellbeing. I’ve struggled to get close to finishing any of these things and this was beginning to cause lots of creative angst. One of the strategies I’ve come across in the mental health world, and in the online world of inspirational businesses, is the idea of goal setting. Of particular use to me has been setting smaller goals, by which I mean developing much smaller projects that are I could potentially finish in a few weeks (it still takes a few months but never mind). I’m finding that in actually finishing some things I feel much more motivated to return to those more ambitious, difficult projects, and I feel better for it. It’s helping, that the play is actually looking in good shape to send somewhere soon.