Swimming the distance: mental health as a endurance pursuit

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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.

Lessons on listening

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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.

Creativity and Catharsis

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I’ve been blogging over the last few weeks about how an arts practice can be a positive thing for wellbeing and mental health. In my last post I was musing on how in the process of making things we transform one set of things (paper and paint, thoughts and feelings) into something else, something beautiful.

I’m interested in the idea that as part of the process of making something, it is possible to use thoughts, feeling, ideas or experiences as a raw material for craft. The concept of artistic expression as a cathartic process is not new. The idea is that the artist may not only use their practice as a medium through which to express feelings, but in the process may somehow expel or ‘purge’ negative emotions from their systems and in doing so would be relieved from them. For many people some negative emotions hold such power that it may be difficult to actually articulate them. A sweep of dark paint across a canvas, or beating of drums or moving the body through dance, may be the way in which a person may actually be able to give some form to those emotions. Once the paint is on the canvas a person may be able to ‘see’ what they are feeling externalised, and feel the emotion is no longer contained within them, but has been ‘set free’. I understand this reading of catharsis as a little like mental vomiting, expelling what is noxious to be rid of it.

A few years ago I was very interested in how story and narrative may have an impact on us humans, and I read the work of (and had the privilege of meeting with) Prof. Keith Oatley, who was very interested in the idea of fictional literature as a kind of emotional simulation. He had a slightly different reading of catharsis that drew on a different translation of the Greek roots. He described how catharsis could be interpreted not as a purging, but as a process of ‘clearing away’ or making sense of emotional turmoil. The experience of being in mental distress can be highly confusing. Some have suggested that through the process of creating art out of an emotional situation, it can be possible to make sense of it. The act of externalising emotion through that sweep of paint on the canvas may not really be effective in removing the emotion from the inside, but what it may be able to do is help make sense of it so that it is ever so slightly easier to live with.