Tag Archives: crisis

Community Solutions

When the problems are yours and yours alone, there may be no answers. You may well not have the knowledge, skills, resources or clarity to deal with whatever is going on. So often, we’re under pressure to find individual solutions and not ‘burden’ other people with the issues. This is especially true around mental health problems.

No one gets into trouble on their own. There’s always a context. In matters of mental health, sources of stress, anxiety and trauma are certainly part of the mix for many of us. How can we fix alone what was done to us by others?

Certainly, there’s a macho component to this. The idea of the heroic self having to stride out there and fight the demons single handed. And when you can do that, it can be empowering. But sometimes, it’s not feasible. Often it’s not feasible in my experience.

We’re more resilient when we share resources. We don’t need as many resources to get things done. Our lives are better when we take care of each other. Being able to help someone else is heartening, and everyone benefits. Why should we keep re-inventing the wheel at the worst moments in our lives when the wisdom and experience of others might enable us to cope better?

When you’re in crisis, it is difficult to think well. It becomes hard to assess what is the panic speaking, and what the real issues are.  It can be very difficult to see the bigger picture, to plan, to hold any kind of perspective. Crisis can freeze you up, at which point, rescuing yourself from it is bloody difficult.

This has been a really tough week for me in a number of ways. Personal crisis things going on, plus the horrible impact of sleep deprivation on my body. Lack of sleep increases my pain levels, and beyond a certain point is also really triggering. Stress and heat have combined to mess up my digestive system. I’ve not been able to think properly. This is not a situation in which I can do much to help myself. I am however blessed with wise and kind friends, who are quick to offer support, reassure me and share wisdom. It has kept me going and stopped me from entirely falling apart. I could not do this on my own.

I’m not good at asking for help. When I’m depressed, I struggle to believe that help could be available. This is not an irrational response, there are things in my history that make it entirely reasonable. However, it’s an out of date response.

A while ago, I ran into some pre-history content about how we decide we’re dealing with modern human cultures. One definition, is when we see evidence of people taking care of each other – injuries that have healed are a good indicator of this. To be civilized, arguably, is to take care of people who have become unable to take care of themselves. Sometimes it feels that we, as a species are becoming deeply uncivilized on those terms. There’s always scope to push back against that, by taking care of each other and recognising that cooperation and community have a great deal to offer us all.


Druidry and rescue

This is a tested approach for dealing with someone in emotional crises. In an ideal situation it would just be a case of grabbing some professional help, but mostly there isn’t any of that to be had, so if someone close to you is in crisis, you may be all they have.

This approach needs handling with the calm authority you would bring to leading a meditation or a ritual. That means you may well use your emotional range to get things done, but you have to do so from a place of love, strength and confidence.

  1. Make non-threatening physical contact. It helps focus attention. If someone has disappeared into themselves, and isn’t functioning, touch is a good way of getting their attention. Put a hand on their shoulder, hold their hand, that kind of thing.
  2. If you don’t know what’s happening, ask, and listen without judgement. Say nothing that will undermine them, or invalidate their feelings. You may not agree with what they are feeling and why, but if you bring that up now you will only make things worse. Don’t criticise, avoid anything that could be taken as you saying these feelings are not reasonable or valid – you have to start from where the person is right now. No one is ever rescued by being made to feel that their emotions are somehow wrong. Your understanding is essential.
  3. Validate their feelings. Tell them you understand why they feel as they do. Recognise the context in which this is happening to them. Empathise with them. If they don’t talk or you don’t need to ask, verbally empathise. Tell them as much as you can about what you understand of what’s happening and why it’s a reasonable response.
  4. Using your empathy, you need to persuade the person that you are inside this situation with them. Not that you feel exactly the same, but you are in there, feeling what is happening. You may need to cry for them, but be careful not to make it about you.
  5. Refuse to leave them in this place. Tell them you are with them, and that you can get them out. Believe that you can walk them out of this place. One breath at a time. One step at a time. This is where your pathworking/ritual skills really come in. You have to walk them out. Keep it in the present tense, don’t talk about the future too much. Take a ‘this is what we’re going to do right now,’ tone. Keep it simple. Reassure them that they can get through this. The rest you will have to make specific to what’s happening, but it is your empathy and your being in there with them that will enable you to pull them out a little way. You do not need to fix everything right now, you just need to get your person to engage with you and consider that things could be better. Your love, determination and compassion are key here. Don’t use emotional blackmail. It is ok to say ‘I need you’ or ‘I don’t want to live without you’ but don’t say ‘stop doing this to me I can’t bear it’ because that kind of thing will push them deeper in. Make it about them and what they need. They probably do need to feel needed, but not wholly responsible for you.
  6. As soon as you have them engaged with you, make some physical interventions. Do things that will be grounding and physically supportive – hot drinks, food, a blanket, getting them to bed, or under a shower, or into a bath and fresh clothes. Brush their hair, massage their feet, make them a hot water bottle, get them outside for some fresh air, or to a window. From this point onwards, focus on physical care – it supports mental health, is a good expression of love and support and creates space in which they can keep talking. Encourage them to keep talking, but don’t push hard, talking is often exhausting when in crisis. It may take a few rounds to deal with what is happening.
  7. When things are stable, consider the underlying issues and what can be done to tackle them. Do not try and do this when the person is in crisis, they won’t have the resources and may be overwhelmed and intimidated.

When you lose your mental health

It isn’t always obvious that you are in crisis. From inside a mental health crisis, what you are doing and feeling may well make perfect sense. Lockdown may make people more vulnerable to suffering the consequences of not knowing you are in trouble,  so I thought I’d talk about a few things to watch for, in yourself, and anyone you’re interacting with.

Paranoia is a likely consequence of poor mental health. It’s a form of anxiety, and right now it will be made worse by lack of contact with people who can offer alternatives, plus the vast array of conspiracy theories out there. If you are in a country whose government is handling the pandemic badly and people are dying because of that, then some amount of paranoia may be appropriate and reasonable. When it takes over your entire thought process, then you are in trouble, but this is hard to spot from the inside.

Catastrophising is another common consequence of failing mental health. You focus on the worst possible outcomes and start to see them as likely, or inevitable. Again this may seem wholly realistic. If you’re starting to feel like lockdown will never end, that you and everyone you have ever loved is bound to die, then you are catastrophising. It is a persuasive line of thought, but that doesn’t make it a definite truth.

Overwhelming futility – this one comes from depression, but it can pair up easily with paranoia and catastrophising. It feels like there is no point doing anything. At the extreme end, there seems to be no point getting out of bed, or eating. This is likely to turn up with, and be reinforced by overwhelming feels of exhaustion and leadenness.

The best solution I have found when dealing with this in better times, was to have people you can trust to hear you, not make you feel ridiculous and help you get things back in proportion. However, there is no knowing right now who else might be driven around the bend by what they are experiencing. If we dig in with these experiences together, we can amplify them for each other. It’s difficult to keep things in proportion when the world is such a mess. It’s hard to be certain that any kind of hope or optimism is rational at all. But in terms of surviving and being able to function, some kind of hope is essential. Hope as a deliberately chosen path, despite all the evidence that does not support it, might be the most insane and most healthy thing you can go for right now.

The other thing to always consider with failing mental health, is to focus on the practical and physical things. Look after your body, eat good food, rest, get exercise, get some sun if you can and some tree time. It gives your mind something productive to focus on and you can make a difference to yourself and those around you with a focus on bodily wellbeing. Focus on surviving and staying able to function. Hopefully there is a far side to all this where healing will be possible and we can rebuild ourselves. Human minds are fragile and damage easily, but are also resilient and can recover.


Lessons from the crisis

Extreme circumstances always have the capacity to teach us. For the person who has never had their life upheaved in this way before and has never felt so powerless, those will be serious lessons. To be frozen and overwhelmed, unable to act or think when you have always assumed you would stay in control of yourself, is a hard lesson to learn. I hope as we move forward, more people will understand how it is that so many people freeze in response to domestic abuse and sexual violence. Freezing is a very human response to having no power.

We will all learn things about ourselves. What we do under pressure. What we miss and long for. How we handle fear, and what we fear. Most of us won’t be able to use this time to do the great project we always dreamed of – most of us will be hanging on by our fingernails at best. But we may find out what role other people’s creativity plays in our lives. If you are turning to Netflix, to books, films, games or music then you are using creativity to get you through. I hope people learn to value their creators, and the way the vast majority of creators are seriously underpaid becomes visible.

We’ve learned about who really matters in our societies, and that wage doesn’t come into it. We’ve learned that low paid folk in retail and in care homes are all that stands between us all and certain doom.

There may be lessons to come about the way busyness has filled our time and what the quiet of its absence looks like. The role of work in terms of our social interactions. How we really do with the people we live with. The terms that make our lives and relationships possible. For many of us, these weeks will bring into focus who it is that really matters. Who we need. Who we can’t bear to be parted from. No one knows who is going to survive this crisis, which for many of us means there is an urgency to dropping guard and telling people we love them. There may be no second chances.

We’re learning what it’s like to have quiet roads and clean air. We’re learning that a great many things we were told had to be done a certain way… don’t. There’s a lot more room for innovation than anyone was previously willing to admit. You don’t have to be in the building to be in the meeting. There’s a lot we can get done without consuming anything like as much energy or putting out anything like as much carbon.

None of us really know who we are until circumstances test us. We might not like what we see in ourselves as these challenges unfold. We might not be as good, or heroic, or worthy as we thought we were. But, if you don’t know where you are, it’s difficult to make good choices around where you need to go. Discomfort is also a powerful teacher.


What does self care even mean?

The encouragement to ‘practice self care’ floats round the internet a lot. Sometimes it rather feels that if you are still ill, still struggling, it might be your fault for not doing enough of the self care things – I doubt I’m the only one who feels this on a bad day. Self-care is a rather vague sort of notion and the prompt to undertake it rather assumes that what’s needed is fairly easy, or obvious… and often it isn’t.

If you only have mild problems, or only have one problem, then it can be easy to identify what would help. However, when you have multiple problems, what eases one can exacerbate another. Is loneliness making you depressed? But would going out to spend time people trigger your anxiety, or cost energy you don’t have, or are you in too much pain to do it? Then there’s no easy self-care answer to be had.

Trying to find the balance between being active enough to maintain some kind of health, and not wiping out your resources, is an ongoing issue for many people. Part of the trouble is that you don’t know upfront how far you can get. Will some physical activity ease the loss of energy due to depression, or lead to a panic attack that wipes you out entirely? Will the improved circulation from moving about help with healing, or will the aching muscles cost you too much? The big one for me is always, get on the trampoline to sort the dysfunctional lymph glands, or rest the sore muscles. I hurt either way, the question is, which will be worst, which outcome can I least afford? I don’t always get it right.

Sometimes ‘self care’ means trying to figure out the way forward that will hurt least, or deciding which hurt you can most afford. I’ll take body pain if I can gain some ground for mental health, most days. Except on the days when it’s the body pain causing my brain to shut down, or leaving me too open to panic.

Self-care is a lovely idea. If it’s easy to do, then the problems aren’t that big in the first place. If you can fix yourself with a few days off, a nice bath, a walk in the woods – then you were not in massive crisis to begin with. I’m glad for you, but please don’t assume that’s a measure of how anyone else is doing. And if you’re on the other side of this – if no matter how you try to look after things you can’t get on top of your problems, it isn’t your fault. Not everything can be fixed. Not everything can be healed and put right with enough care and attention. Sometimes there isn’t enough self care possible to change how things are.

Also, sometimes self-care isn’t the answer because people need caring for. If someone is over-worked, over-burdened, doing too much emotional labour, being put under too much pressure – it should not be on them to also save themselves. Pushing people towards self-care can be a way of avoiding feeling responsible for them. Sometimes, the answer is to get in there and ask what would help. Take some of the weight off their shoulders. Don’t leave them to fight all their own battles (sexism, racism, ageism, fat shaming, abelism and all things of this ilk are exhausting and take a real toll). Don’t imagine that telling someone to practice self-care is actually helping them – it’s just well meaning noise. If you want to help, make sure they have the space, the time and the resources to practice self care, because without that, telling a person to fix themselves is just adding to what they have to bear.


When it isn’t drama

For the person in crisis or recovering from trauma, the accusation of being a drama queen is an experience of being kicked when you’re down. From the outside, it can be hard to see what you’re dealing with – especially where old wounds, hidden traumas and invisible triggers are concerned. That it would not be a crisis for you is not a measure of a thing. Context can also play a big part, with poverty, ill health and other such problems turning what might be mole hills for the well resourced, into impossible mountains.

How do you tell what to do when you can’t tell what’s really going on?

I think the first question to ask is about your own resources. If you have time, energy and comfort, if you are well resourced then you can certainly afford to spend some time acting with sympathy in response to a problem. If you aren’t well enough resourced to help much, you have to take those limits into account.

The person who is in crisis is unlikely to try and burden you further if it looks like you too cannot cope. People in crisis know about being pushed towards the edge. However, people interested in being centre stage and wanting there to be a drama that revolves around them are much more likely to demand your help even if you’ve been clear that you can’t do much.

Poverty, debt and illness can lead you into vicious circles and downward spirals and create one crisis after another. Frequency of crisis is not therefore a sign that someone is definitely doing drama. However, people who don’t enjoy drama are often awkward and embarrassed about asking for help. They are more likely also to feel responsible for what’s happened to them even if it isn’t in any way their fault. Drama enthusiasts, on the other hand, seldom feel responsible even when they are.

People in crisis do what they can to get out of the crisis. They may do it badly, they may make bad choices along the way, or be too proud to get help when they could have done, and that doesn’t always look great from the outside, but it isn’t drama. People who like drama can be remarkably good at not finding solutions or getting things fixed and keeping things in drama mode for far longer than necessary. They also tend to want the solutions to come from somewhere other than themselves. The desire for attention is more important than the desire to get things sorted out.

Of course often it isn’t this binary. Drama llamas can have real crises. People dealing with relentless, grinding challenges can become very hungry for care and attention in a way that also blurs the edges. There’s also the factor that the would-be helper isn’t neutral in all of this. If you could help and don’t want to, that doesn’t make the person asking for help a drama queen. If the problems aren’t solvable – as with chronic illness – it doesn’t mean the person is less deserving of what help can be given. If you resent the attention someone else is getting for being in crisis, that might be about you, and not them at all.


Escaping the barbed wire hamster wheel

There are ways of talking about paths we get in our minds that are proper and technical and scientific. Just so that you know – I won’t be doing that. I find it easier to talk in metaphor. It has to be said, that the idea of pathways through the mind is passably literal. When it comes to the barbed wire hamster wheel, I may be straying into the realms of the less technically accurate.

The barbed wire hamster wheel is a terrible thing to be on. All you can do is run in its little circle, while the barbed wire flays you. Arriving, and leaving seem, when you’re on the wheel, to be incomprehensible things. More like acts of god, than anything you could have chosen or changed. When on the wheel, with blood and skin flying metaphorically all over the place, it’s almost impossible to be aware of anything other than the wheel.

These are thought processes it is really hard to express in any other way. They don’t obey reason, they aren’t open to recognising cause and effect, they can’t be argued with. The barbed wire hamster wheel has its own truth, and its truth is that you are awful, failing, useless, worthless, and that you absolutely deserve to be trapped in a barbed wire hamster wheel and obliged to run and tear yourself to shreds in it for all eternity. This is what it seems like when some kind of tortured crisis is underway on the inside.

Last weekend I ran for several days in the hamster wheel. I sobbed, and bled, and thought I would be there forever. Usually I get to stop running only because I become so exhausted that I can’t feel anything anymore. This time I stopped running. The difference? I think it’s a consequence of years of being supported in questioning the truth of that wheel, and being encouraged to question why I am running in it.

This week I’ve been able to give it a name (Tom came up with the name for me). In naming it, I have power over it. If those feelings of frantically running in vicious circles come back, I will know what to call them, but maybe they won’t come back, and maybe if they show up, I won’t have to climb inside and start running.

It is a very hard thing to question your own reality. Those questions can seem more terrifying than the wheel does. That’s part of why it’s so hard to get out of the wheel and think something different. But it can be done, and having done it once I at least know that I can do it again.


Being human in a crisis

I got online this morning to find that, in the last 24 hours, a lot of really awful things have happened in a lot of different places. We live in an age where the woes of the world are rapidly available to us. While part of me feels shock and sorrow over what yesterday brought to a lot of people, another part of me knows this is nothing new. These things have always happened, we just didn’t always know about it. Big disasters, be they natural or man-made, can catch us in a number of ways.

Some of us respond by trying to find meaning. Did we anger the gods? Did we damage the balance? What caused it? How can we prevent it, or better mitigate against the next one? Answers and action give back a sense of control. We like having something to blame. If we’re realistic, this can be helpful, if we come up with some lunacy like ‘god is punishing us for gay people’ then we’re going to make things a whole lot worse.

Some of us respond with despair. Life is short, nasty and brutish. Nature red in tooth and claw. Man’s inhumanity to man. It’s all horrible, we’re all horrible, eventually we will all die. Grief is an essential part of our humanity, but if we let it run too far, and too deeply, we become powerless to act, unable to see the good in anything, and that doesn’t help in the slightest.

Some of us respond by trying to help. We donate to good causes. If we’re really keen, we head out for the area of disaster to help deal with the immediate crisis and the rebuild afterwards. We don’t ask why it happened, we just get on with sorting it out, and in the short term this is often a good response, but if we don’t stop to ask the awkward, uncomfortable questions at some point, things that could have been changed go unchallenged.

Some of us enjoy it. Perhaps because of the challenge, or the drama, or we find it exciting. Perhaps it validates a personal belief or we enjoy the suffering of others.

Some of us go numb, we tune it out, we refuse to feel, to know or to care. It’s not our problem, not our responsibility, we don’t want to know. We think we’re protecting ourselves by not caring, but there is a cost to hardening your heart and looking the other way.

The meanings we ascribe to events, and the choices we make may not have the power to radically change what’s happening out there. What they do is inform our own lives, and shape who we are, and what we do. World events are nothing more than the combined effect of many lives. Each small part may seem irrelevant when viewed alone, but what we do collectively has huge impact.

We can respond with blame, rage, violence. We can respond with apathy and inaction. We can try to help. In the long term we can think about why things happen as they do, and we can think about how to change things. We have those options.


Life Without Drama

*Somehow I messed up posting this – my computer was down and I was writing on an unfamiliar machine, sorry about that! Normal service resumes now…*

I’ve had more than a month with no real drama, although there have been plenty of intense and challenging things going on. None of the big stuff of late has happened with extra arm waving from me or anyone else. It’s been a very measured time, with things being tackled, not expanded. I’ve not missed the drama at all, but have experienced this as a relief. I’ve had arguments that were all about the content and the issues, not about how I should be behaving differently.

Life throws everyone curve balls, and when we’re connected to other people, the odds are at any point we’ve something to fret over. Friends with cancer. The colleague who fell down the stairs recently. The colleague suffering from stress, the various people I know who are dealing with counterproductive management from the hierarchies they have to engage with. The people who have been hurt, and undervalued… I have a long list at the moment of people dealing with difficult things. And yet none of it feels like drama. It feels like life, and people trying to deal with life and qualitatively that’s really different.

Drama is not about problem solving, it’s about drawing people into the crisis, and directing attention towards the person who wants to be in the middle of it. Looking back I suspect patterns of desire for power and significance. Drama created so that someone can suck up time, energy and resources and in so doing, feel important. Drama created to silence me when I needed to talk about something I was having a problem with.

My problem has not been that I like or manufacture drama – I feel fairly confident of that, now. My problem has been that I take other people’s drama seriously and try to be helpful. As I’m a finite being with limited time and energy to deploy, I need to look carefully at where I step up and where I step back. I’m seeing people tackle enormous, life altering things with no drama at all, I do not have to burn myself out for people who create situations so they can demand my help, or for people who have to be at the centre of things and will do anything to stay there.


Drama versus intensity

I’m a very intense person. I feel things keenly, and emotional experiences stay with me. I love fiercely, throw myself into things heart and soul, am tortured by anxiety and depression, and I get my heart broken all too often because I care deeply about things. Recognising that I can’t have the highs without having parallel lows, I have long since accepted myself as I am, and while my responses perplex people now and then, I have no desire to change them.

Looking at other people, it has been difficult to tell whether I’m seeing drama, or intensity. No doubt people looking at me have the same problems. To some, I probably seem excessive and melodramatic. I’ve suffered considerably, and repeatedly by being drawn into drama. I’ve noticed a distinct pattern, and the more time I spend around people who are also intense, the clearer the pattern has become for me.

Like all the other intense people I know, I hate drama. I hate getting things overblown for the sake of it and the relentless effort to turn all molehills into mountains. I can be reduced to tears by a painting. I’d much rather be free to get on with that, and not being reduced to tears by people for whom that’s a spectator sport. People who like drama manufacture it. They create crises that require everyone else to run around. They may weep extravagantly, yell, stomp feet and act out a great deal of emotional expression, but instead of being exhausted from so much emotion, they feed on it, and they feed on the exposed emotions of those caught up in the play, and so they keep making sure these things happen. With a drama enthusiast, things never settle down, never become calm and workable.

Based on observation, there are a number of possible motives. The drama enthusiast is always at the centre of the whirlwind, and the centre of attention. Drama makes sure the world revolves around them, and anyone in their orbit is kept circling and attentive. There are clearly ego temptations in being the centre of attention. Intense people who are in extremis are more likely to slip away and try to do it quietly, without the added burden of attention and other people’s reactions to deal with. The drama enthusiast needs to feel important. They seem to derive a kind of pleasure from all intense emotion – especially other people’s. They may have a vested interest in being seen as temperamental and passionate – it fits in with an identity that appeals to them.  They tend to be attracted to arts scenes and spiritual spaces, where a heart on a sleeve can look a lot like authenticity and it’s very hard for anyone to challenge them.

I have repeatedly mistaken drama queens for truly intense people. I like the company of other people who feel too much because there are things I do not have to explain. Intense people shun needless drama, and tend, I have noticed, to try and bring situations down to more manageable, bearable levels rather than escalating them. Intense people are a lot more reliable as friends, too, and less likely to throw a hissy fit and run off over some minor thing.

I spent a lot of years being told that I’m unreasonable and melodramatic. I guess on some level I internalised this as meaning that I belong with the unreasonable and melodramatic people. Except that I hate all that stuff. I like quiet, reflective, thoughtful people who feel things too keenly to want any unnecessary screaming and shouting in the mix.