Tag Archives: healing

Nature, culture and healing

What makes you feel like yourself? What do you do that gives you a sense of being fully present, alive and acting from a place of authenticity? Conversely, how much time do you spend in spaces where you have to pretend to be other than you are? What do you do that robs you of identity and leaves you numb, disengaged and dysfunctional?

One of the truly great things about being outside and alone is that you don’t have to perform. The elements do not require you to be other than you are. If your sense of self has been crushed by pressures and expectations, this time alone might be your best hope of healing and finding yourself. We don’t lose ourselves anything like as much as we have our identities taken from us.

We can end up feeling that we are the roles we are obliged to perform. If our work, our usefulness, our family identity is the only thing anyone else sees and interacts with, the result can be lonely and demoralising. We all need the room to be more than the utility we provide to others.

Running off into the wilderness can be a tempting antidote to this. But, humans put a lot of pressure on what wild nature remains. It might be more productive to stop looking to nature to heal us and start looking to human culture not to ravage us in the first place. A better work-life balance would do a lot to restore many people to themselves. A kinder, more inclusive, supportive and spacious society would really help too.


When you can’t reboot

Healing – whether we’re talking about the body or the mind – is often framed as getting back to how things were before. This assumes that there was a before, and that you can return to it. There can be a lot of ableism tied up in the idea of getting people back to how they were. Where experience has been impactful, it’s often a lot more useful to embrace the change and focus on how to move forward to best effect.

A return to normal as a proposed goal can distract you from coming to terms with things as they now are. Even if your body can be put back pretty much as it was, a dramatic experience of injury or illness will change you. I think it’s really unhealthy not to give people room to be changed by that. How you feel and what you want to do with your life may be very different after the event, and it may have you questioning you previous ‘normal’ choices and priorities.

You can’t un-know trauma. You can’t re-wind and re-set to become the person who did not have that experience. Traumatic experiences change your perspective. You become more aware of the dangers, of the potential for loss. You can’t have that innocence back. You will need to form a new relationship with the world that includes what the trauma showed you, but holds it in a way that allows you to function.

There may be nowhere to go back to. If the damage – bodily or psychological – happened early, you will have no memories of what other people think of as normal. If you’ve never felt safe you don’t have the knowledge to draw on to overcome your difficulties. A lot of the available support material depends on the assumption that you can reconnect with your pre-trauma self and use that as at least a point of reference for a reboot. Not everyone has a pre-trauma self.

This means that for some of us, healing cannot be a reboot, because there’s nothing to reboot from. Healing means building from scratch things that other people take for granted. Trust. Self esteem. Confidence in the world, in people, in your right not to be hurt… these are hard things to develop later in life if you’ve grown up in an unsafe or inadequate environment. If you’ve never felt good enough or worthy of love, it’s a hard thing to grow that from scratch. Running into self help material around this can feel a lot like having it suggested that you’d be fine if you just grew a tail. And it doesn’t matter how obvious it is to anyone else that growing a tail should be easy and simple, if you’ve never had a tail, it’s intimidating and may well seem impossible.


Inside the comfort zone

The edge of the comfort zone is reputed to be the most productive place. It doesn’t mean you could, or should aspire to live there. And yes, pushing your limits can be good and exciting, but if you have to do it all the time it turns out to be relentless and exhausting. There should be no shame in seeking comfort and in wanting to be comfortable.

It is worth asking what comfort means. For me, these are the experiences that give something to us, gently. Comfort is nourishment, it soothes and affirms us. Our bodies need time to rest and recover. Learning requires downtime for us to digest and process. We actually grow more, improve more if we have downtime to consolidate that. None of us do our best anything when we are out at the edges all the time.

Comfort is highly personal and depends a lot on needs. For one person, comfort might be an afternoon of baking. For another person, it might be the ready meal that means you get to eat when you are otherwise barely coping. 

Comforts may take the form of things that look trivial to other people. We should be less judgemental about this. I note that the kinds of things women find comforting – romance novels and soap operas for example – tend to be treated as trashy. Taking comfort in watching sport and drinking alcohol is assumed to be manly and often gets treated with a lot more respect. The pleasures of the wealthy tend to be treated with more respect and admiration – yachts, horse racing etc than the pleasures of the poor – beer, cigarettes TV, etc. We’re far quicker to defend the rights of the wealthy to their planet-killing leisure activities than we are to defend the rights of poor people not to work themselves to death.

We all need time to be lazy. We need time to heal, reflect, regroup, recharge. People whose comfort choices seem problematic from the outside are often people who are suffering from a lot of pressures and a lack of resources. Exhaustion and poverty are going to impact on what you can do to comfort yourself. 

Rather than judging people for their lifestyle ‘choices’ I’d like to see a greater move towards considering what shared resources we have, and improving that. Green spaces, sports facilities, libraries, and cultural spaces can all offer comfort and opportunity, where we invest in that for the benefit of all. We need to recognise that poverty is stressful and that there are consequences. We need to stop treating hard work as virtuous and wealth as a measure of whether you should be working hard.

Everyone needs comfort. Everyone needs rest. I wonder what would happen if we started discussing comfort redistribution, and health redistribution, rather than focusing on money. Perhaps that way there would be more collective understanding of the implications of wealth and poverty.


Giving each other permission

I talk a fair bit about the idea of healing needing to be a community project. Often this is because of things that are systemic – so much suffering is caused by poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, lack of resources and the places where these things collide. Tackling that in small groups isn’t much easier than tackling it alone.

One of the things we can do for each other, is to give each other permission. Here are some examples…

Whatever you feel is valid. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.

Being different does not make you wrong. The failure of systems to accommodate your difference is their fault not yours.

It is ok not to feel ok. You do not have to pretend to feel ok to make me feel more comfortable.

We can give each other permission to rest, and to take care of ourselves. We can remind each other that being productive isn’t always the most important thing. We can remind each other that it makes sense to do what we can do and try not to worry about what isn’t possible right now. We can give each other permission to go back to bed and try to get some more sleep.

Being held to other people’s standards can be impossible and damaging. It can be something that is done to people as a deliberate project to control and demoralise them. Emotional punishment for feeling how you feel teaches us that our most fundamental selves aren’t valid or welcome. We can counter that for each other by being overtly accepting of difficultly.

Perhaps the most generous thing you can do for someone you care about is give them permission to make it all about them, sometimes. Tell them that they are allowed to put themselves first in whatever way they need to. Tell them that you do not expect them to out you first all the time. There will be people who have never heard this from anyone before. It’s a powerful, pain easing, comforting, empowering thing to do.


Listening to your body

The idea of listening to your body comes up a lot around health work. However, I think it’s really important to ask why we might not be doing that in the first place. This won’t be an exhaustive list, do please add more in the comments if you see an obvious absence. Or an unobvious one.

You can’t listen to your body if your body is exhausted but you have to work. Poverty can make it impossible to take needful time off for rest or for recovery from illness.

Your body may require better food, more food, more protein, more fresh fruit and veg. If you cannot afford a better diet, you can’t afford to listen to your body. The same is true for being too cold, too hot, or in a situation of light or sound pollution you can’t do anything about.

You may have been told that you make a fuss, have a low pain threshold, overreact, exaggerate, lie, or that you just want to get out of doing things. You may have been taught to mistrust or disbelieve what your body seems to be telling you. This isn’t easy to unpick.

You may have listened to your body, consulted with doctors and discovered that there isn’t much that can be done to help you. This happens a lot around chronic illness, and you may be choosing to ignore things as being the best way to deal with them. If you’re not listening to your body as a way to stay sane and functional, that’s an entirely valid choice.

There are times when ignoring your body is vital. Dealing with addiction, or trying to break out of it requires you to ignore what your body is telling you. Changing your eating habits can mean ignoring what your body says. Overcoming anxieties can mean pushing back against the messages your body gives you. Some of the ways in which we are broken mean that we cannot trust our bodies to guide us. It’s hard work having to fight your own body, but sometimes that’s necessary for healing and recovery.

How we relate to our bodies isn’t just a personal matter. It’s held by a social context that can put all kinds of pressures on us. How many people are unable to eat properly because of the social pressure they feel to be thin? Not being able to rest, and not getting enough sleep are issues framed by working lives, social lives and often a technology-driven anxiety that makes us feel we have to be available to people all of the time.

It is good, often, to listen to your body. Sometimes it is essential to ignore your body. It helps to know what you’re doing and why. Some of these issues simply can’t be handled at the individual level and require cultural change, so it’s also really important not to blame or shame anyone who might be trapped by circumstance, and by what capitalism does to people. Not everyone can break out on their own.


Stories to Light the Night – a review

Susan Perrow is a well established international expert in the field of healing stories. I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in exploring stories (or for that matter any other creative writing) as a healing tool. For anyone following the bard path, this could be a vital part of your tool kit. While this book is focused on creating stories to help children process grief, there are wider implications and the content will certainly benefit older readers/listeners as well.

Stories to Light The Night lays out what it takes to write a healing story. This is invaluable information for anyone considering such work. The majority of the book is taken up with stories. The book is themed around healing from grief, and the topics covered are – the loss of a loved one, the loss of a family connection, the loss of a pet, the loss of health and wellbeing, the loss of place, environmental grief and loss, cycles of life and change, and a chapter that covers an array of other losses.

The stories themselves are mostly written by Susan Perrow, but a fair few come from other therapeutic authors working in different contexts around the world. As a consequence, there’s a diversity of perspective and experience, which I found really helpful and interesting.

All of the stories are presented with a piece about the context in which they were written. Most of them fall into one of two categories – either that they were written by someone as a way of working with their own grief and then offered to others to help, or they were written for a specific family, child, or community. It means that with most stories, there is also a story about what had happened. Many of them were heartbreaking. I cried over pretty much every story in the loss of a loved one section. They are poignant and not easy, even though these stories are short and accessible. They help you face up to grief and to better understand it.

If you have unprocessed grief, this book is going to do things to you. The work of dealing with grief is important, but make sure you don’t get caught off-guard by this. If you are looking for help with your own grief, this book might aid you, but give yourself plenty of time to digest, process and whimper. I did not realise how much unprocessed grief I was carrying when I started reading, and I was caught out by that. Which is fine – books do that sometimes.

The stories here could be used directly by reading them to people who might be helped by them. If you’re interested in using stories as a therapeutic tool in a healing context, this book is a really interesting introduction to the subject. If you are interested in how to bring healing work into your own writing and storytelling, this book has a great deal to offer.

Find out more about the book here – https://www.hawthornpress.com/books/family/bereavement/stories-to-light-the-night/


In the country of can’t

I’m used to being able to push through. I’m stubborn, determined and I have a lot of willpower, normally. So when anxiety and depression get their teeth in me, I push back. When fatigue floods my body, I keep moving. When my pain levels are high, I still keep going.  Sometimes I’ve burned out and had to take a few days off. Last year I discovered that this makes me ‘high functioning’ and doesn’t mean that what I’m experiencing is less serious than it is for someone who could not keep going in face of it.

Finding I can’t do things is a whole new issue. Staring blankly at screens when I can’t gather my thoughts to write blog content, or even emails. Unable to sleep from the anxiety that comes with having to get up the next day and work. Unable to move. Finding getting up from the sofa to pee requires all the willpower I can muster. It turns out I am not a limitless being able to manifest my every intention – not that I ever really thought that was true. I am an entirely finite mammal and I am out of resources. It’s a scary place to be, but also fascinating because I’ve never been here before.

For the first time in my life, I have no options of saying ‘yes’ a lot of the time. I am obliged to say no, and to retreat to the sofa, and ask for support.  It’s a strange sort of experience, I don’t like the powerlessness, but I know I won’t get past this unless I surrender to it and let myself heal. I’ve had to have a few conversations about what I can’t do – most of the people I’m dealing with are being brilliant. And where people aren’t able to come through for me…. All I can do is let go and accept because I’m out of options.  I suspect this is going to have interesting impacts on some of my relationships.

Concentrating to write is hard today, but, I’ve changed how I do blog content so that it isn’t time pressured. It’s ok if this takes me twice as long as it used to. Accepting my limitations and working within them is key at the moment. And somehow, from this place of mostly can’t, I have to figure out how to take better care of myself. I have to work out what will help me recover, and how to keep limping onwards in the meantime. I can’t recommend starting from here.

Slowly, gently, putting down what I can, letting go of what I can, trusting people to get my back, and resting as much as I can are my main tactics right now. I think I can get a proper week off at the start of February, and I think that will help a lot. Onwards, lurching awkwardly, but onwards…


New to managing your energy?

There’s going to be a lot of this about – people who used to be fine but who now need to manage their energy carefully. Fatigue is a common symptom of long covid. The psychological and emotional impact of lockdown is leaving people depressed, burnt out and exhausted. How do you cope?

My husband Tom recently had a stroke and went from being someone who could safely assume they had plenty of energy, to someone whose energy is unreliable. It’s come as a shock to him. So, be ready for it to be a shock and give yourself time and space to process that.

Often when people talk about poor energy they talk about spoons, and waking up in the morning and having to decide how to deploy whatever energy is available.  Only in practice, you won’t know – especially not when you’re new to this – how far the available energy might go or how tiring any specific activity might be. Things that used to be easy will no longer be easy and you will, at first, have no idea how to budget for that. Learning how to assess the energy cost and to budget for it takes a while – try to be gentle with yourself while you figure this out, and know that you will get it wrong sometimes. It’s ok to get this wrong, this is a steep learning curve at a really unhelpful, under-resourced time.

You have to decide what’s most important. If you want any hope of getting out of your low energy state, you have to decide that your health is the most important thing, and the people around you need to support that choice. (This isn’t always an option, sadly.) You then have to start off in the morning with the things that will most help you with your health. That’s going to be personal and will also need figuring out. Budget in time to rest, move slowly, but try to keep moving because you will feel better if you’re able to get something done – that might be a shower, or an email, or a small walk – whatever works for you. Set your sights low, aim low, but try and manage something.

You’re going to need patience. You’re going to have to forgive yourself for what you can’t do and be ok with asking other people to cover for you. Give yourself time. Healing takes a while. Learning how to manage what you’ve got also takes a while.


Hypervigilance, continued

After my first and rather speculative blog about hypervigilance in the body, I immediately started running into information about this. Apparently it is a thing, and there is proper research out there, and poking about with a search engine can lead you to articles and information. Hypervigilance is not simply a condition of the mind. I’m finding that just knowing this has changed how I feel about it.

I know from experience that pushing and training my mind is an option I have. I can be fairly brutal with my head in terms of what I demand of myself. Most of my coping mechanisms depend on making my brain deal with things. I know it is much harder to push myself emotionally that way. It doesn’t work at all with my body. I can force my body to ignore pain and distress, but they don’t go away. I’m increasingly suspicious that forcing my brain doesn’t really solve anything, it just moves the problems around, but that’s a post for another day.

If the hypervigilance is in my body, then I will have to work on calming my body, not forcing it to deal with things. If I want to be better. There are often issues for me around the work involved with being better, the inconvenience it might cause, and what I might have to ask of other people.

I’ve also been talking recently (in this post) about what soothes and comforts my body in the first place – and not much does. Putting the two together has at least given me the mechanics for why I can only nap with a cat. That I have issues with light is a hypervigilance thing. I don’t sleep well with lights on. But, cats calm me, and the presence of a cat can be more powerful than the impact of light.

I think one of the missing pieces in this puzzle may well be kindness. Being kind to me has never seemed like a priority. I push through fear, and pain and difficulty routinely. Feelings of safety, comfort, relaxation, release, tranquillity and ease have never been much of a priority. I suspect that part of why my body is always tensed for the next threat is that I don’t give it much time off, or recovery time, nor do I do anything much restorative after difficult experiences. That in turn depends on stories about what I should be able to do, what’s normal, what’s a reasonable expectation, and that I was probably just making a fuss in the first place.

I’m not currently sure what to do with any of this. I find it useful having explanations for what’s going on. Whether the answer is simply to accept this is how things are for me, or to look at what it would take to make changes, I am unsure.


Trauma and basic needs

It occurred to me last week that trauma can be understood as what happens to us when our most basic needs aren’t met. I’m finding this a helpful re-framing because ‘trauma’ as a word suggests drama, but it might not always register that way. Sleep deprivation is considered traumatic enough to count as torture under international law. One or two bad nights clearly don’t impact traumatically, but when your sleep is consistently undermined over longer time frames, it becomes maddening. A few missed meals aren’t traumatic, necessarily, but starvation certainly is.

In really mundane ways, we can lose our safety. Being shouted at every day. Being threatened and harassed. Not being allowed to rest. We experience damage from trauma not when there’s some abnormal drama that we can understand as exceptional, but when the trauma becomes normal. One loud explosion probably won’t traumatise you. Dealing with it every day was what gave soldiers shell shock. Once trauma becomes normal, the world no longer feels safe and everything is potentially threatening and more dangerous.

It is also fundamentally dehumanising not to have basic needs met. These include basic needs for emotional security and comfort, for shelter and dignity. Emotional abuse – especially in childhood –  can rob a person of their sense of personhood.

Basic needs are essential things that we can’t do without for any length of time. These include our physical needs, our emotional and our social needs. How we experience losing those will vary, but the harm is considerable. In my experience, one of the problems is how easy it is to have genuine need start to seem trivial and not to be fussed over. The need to feel safe becomes being fragile and over-reacting. The need for anything can be minimised and treated as unimportant, adding a gaslighting element to an already problematic situation. When you start to believe that your basic needs don’t matter, that you don’t count in the way ‘real’ people do, you become incredibly vulnerable.

I’ve realised in recent weeks that one of the long term consequences of such experiences, is that I don’t know how to reliably prioritise my basic needs. I don’t know how to feel safe flagging up problems when they happen. I don’t know how or when to ask for help when basic needs aren’t met. I am easily persuaded that my doing without something I needed is a fair solution to other problems. This is going to take some unpicking. To heal, to be safe I have to make sure my basic needs are reliably met, but having internalised abuse and gaslighting, I’ve become part of my own problem. I can change that but it will take work.

The idea that I am fundamentally entitled to have my needs met, to ask that my needs be met and to raise it as an issue when they are not, is a very large thought for me. We should all have this, and I am painfully aware that for many people in the world, getting basic needs met is not a question of learning how to ask. It’s a question of systemic oppression, international abuses of power, war, climate chaos and exploitation.