Tag Archives: healing

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.

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Recovering from trauma

It’s been a slow process and I’m not entirely there yet. I’m a lot better than I used to be. Here are some things I’ve learned about recovery along the way, and what helps, and what doesn’t.

I could not start to heal until I got to a place where I was not routinely being triggered and terrified. This might sound like a no-brainer but I had a fair few people expecting me to get well when I was still not safe. It’s only since I’ve had time feeling reliably safe that my body has started to respond to life like safe is normal and threat isn’t.

I have not gone at the pace some people thought I should. Being told (by people with little or no experience of trauma) what I should be like, and what kind of medical interventions I should have, etc has done the exact opposite of help. What I needed was time feeling safe. People pressuring me to fix at a rate that suited them have not made me feel safe- quite the opposite. Getting these people out of my life has helped me heal.

Focusing on the small scale stuff has helped a lot – rest and time outside, good food, things that work for my body. Being supported in this has been a great help. Not dealing so much with people who have felt the main thing was to get me back to work, not to get me well again.

Surrounding myself with people who are kind and supportive, and who only challenge me in ways that help me to grow. I haven’t always made the best decisions about who to spend time with, and looking back at some of the connections that dragged me down, demoralised and exhausted me, I can see they really weren’t helping. Again, it’s taken me a while to learn how to pick my people. Gentle and supportive environments are best for healing. With gaslighting in my history, I am a lot better off when I don’t have to constantly try and second guess the people I’m dealing with nor worry about what they might imaginatively infer from what I do and say.

As my life and my environment have become gentler and kinder, recovery has become easier. I don’t trigger as often as I used to in no small part because there is so little in my daily life that could trigger me. A key piece of learning for me around this is that people who are dismissive of what I find difficult and can’t be bothered to find out what might be ok for me, are not people I owe anything to or need to spend time with.

I think if you’re trying to help someone recover from a traumatic experience, the best thing to do is not to try and fix them. Attempts at ‘fixing’ can be really invasive, and make the recipient feel like they don’t have control of the situation. That loss of control contributes to trauma. People need to heal on their own terms and in their own time – and too often the people who self announce as healers and rescuers and try to force changes on their own terms and timescales aren’t helpful. If the person being ‘rescued’ doesn’t heal fast enough they can face anger and blame, which does not help with the healing. If the person being ‘healed’ doesn’t want to do the thing, or take the thing the ‘healer’ is adamant about, this too can get nasty. Not everyone who says there are here to help is actually helpful.

What best heals a person, is safe space. Having a kind, supportive environment where you won’t be told off for failing to miraculously recover, makes all the difference. To help someone heal from trauma, it’s best to do very little – show up, be friendly, be kind, be interesting, accept any limitations, be patient. Give people the time and space to fix themselves, and that tends to be what happens.


Soothed by wild things

When things are difficult, getting outside can be soothing and healing. Trees are good for us. So are open skies, bodies of water, and the company of other mammals. However, those of us with smaller problems that are easily fixed are often keen to say ‘turn to nature’ without understanding the limits of that.

To get outside in a way that will help you, you need the time to do that. Not as a one-off, but regularly. If your mental health is falling apart, a single intervention isn’t going to save you. Can you get outside for as many hours as you need every day for the foreseeable future? Probably not, because the things that have ground you down will take up too much of your time.

If you don’t feel safe when you’re outside, then the help of wild things is limited.

If you are bodily limited and/or in pain, then it doesn’t matter where you go, that goes with you. Time with trees may lift your heart a bit, but it cannot cure a suffering body.

Part of what makes getting outside powerful is the increased peace it can bring. How much peace you need is also a factor. If you are living in a situation that is destroying you, half an hour outside may be respite, but it won’t fix things.

If you can change things so that you are able to have the time you need under the sky and amongst trees so that you can feel better, part of what heals you isn’t the space. Part of what heals you is having got away from the things that were causing the damage. If focusing on getting out to spend time with the wild things helps you with getting out, and with putting harmful experiences into perspective, that can help you make or maintain changes. Again, what does the key healing here is the stepping out of what is harmful. If you can do that, it really helps, and if you can’t, tree time alone is unlikely to save you.

When the damage is superficial and easily fixed, we can be persuaded that we are healing because we’ve made really good choices about how to heal. We may fail to recognise that the damage, stress or trauma someone else is dealing with is deeper and more complex. It’s a small step from there to attributing blame and deciding people aren’t healing because they didn’t try hard enough. For the person who has never been deeply wounded, it is hard, perhaps impossible to imagine what deep wounding feels like and what that does in the long term. It is better to assume, if you heal quickly and easily, it is not because your healing system is the best, but because you just weren’t that badly damaged to begin with. If ten minutes with a tree fixes everything, there just wasn’t that much to fix in the first place.


Poetry for healing

Many people turn to poetry for catharsis. While that doesn’t always lead to poems that are meaningful to anyone else, it definitely does work as a cathartic process. Part of this is simply being able to vent. Part of it, however, has everything to do with how you can use language when writing poetry.

The English language doesn’t have a lot of words for describing emotions. To talk about emotions in any detail, we are obliged to say what they are like, or to demonstrate how they play out by using metaphors. If I tell you I am suffering from depression, that will give you a limited idea of what I’m going through. If I tell you that my body is full of lead, and my heart has become a stone, that I am walking through a blasted wasteland where nothing lives or grows and desperately trying to find a way to leave, and afraid there is no way to leave – then you might have some idea.

Poetry gives us permission to put down grammar norms, give up on regular sentence structure, and put words together in ways that work for this specific instance. Poetry structures are very different from normal writing structures, so even if you do decide not to cough up your heart in free verse, it is still different from writing prose. Poetry structures focus on the rhythms and sounds words make, not the logic of how the content is expressed. That in turn allows a person to think different, which can be helpful when you’re struggling to process something.

Afterwards, when you have bled onto the page, there is time to reflect on whether the catharsis poem also functions as a regular poem. Sometimes there’s enough in it that someone else might find it helpful. Often a cathartic poem reads back like a hearty wallow in the deeply personal. To share it, may require editing. One of the most effective ways of taking a catharsis poem and turning it into something shareable, is to make it funny. Going that bit further, and playing misery for laughs can be effective when taking your work to an audience. When we can collectively laugh at pain, it can become collectively cathartic.

Some poems are better used in other ways. Perhaps a ritual burning to help you release those feelings. Physically tearing up paper can be productive as well. Letting them go, and letting what was in them go can be a good thing. Sometimes the answer is to vent and move on. Sometimes, the process of healing with poetry requires us to dig in and go deeper – it’s a very personal choice. However you handle it, bear in mind that a good cathartic healing poem is not necessarily a good poem in any other sense, and that equally, a good poem that people will enjoy is not necessarily going to help you much as a healing process.


The healing power of kindness

When faced with someone in difficulty, it’s very easy for any of us to minimise what we’re seeing or being told. We may well fear that if we are helpful, or cut them slack, we will be taken advantage of. And of course in some instances, this will prove to be the case. However, when we can be kind to each other, we can have powerful effects on each other.

Workplaces often make people ill – they are a massive source of stress and anxiety. People who are overworked and falling behind can seem like a hazard to those who are keeping up. One person’s shortfalls are another person’s escalating problem. It can be hard to push back against that, and it may well carry risks. If we can be kind to each other, we can resist the work culture that will run us all until we collapse. Kindness is a route to not seeing each other as disposable and replaceable.

With kindness, you can find the options that allow people to participate. Reliably stopping the meeting when you said you would stop the meeting can radically improve inclusion. Listening to what people can manage and factoring that in is really powerful. Support and enable people to do the best they can, and more often than not, they’ll do that. When we treat each other kindly, we’re not usually going to open the floodgates for people being exploitative and taking the piss.

When we look after each other, we open the way to being recipients of care as well as givers. We create a culture of care, of watching each other’s backs and helping each other out. We stop counting the cost to us of everything we do when we don’t feel reduced by that. In a culture where support flows to where it’s needed, when you are resourced, you can better afford to be generous. If enough people are prepared to embody the idea that what goes around comes around, they will turn it into a shared truth.

Healing takes time, rest, peace, less stress. It doesn’t really matter what you’re healing from, if the people around you are kind and supportive, you’ve got a better shot at it and will do it sooner. If we are kind to each other, not only can we help with individual healing, but we create a scope for cultural healing, for community wellness and for relationships based on trust and doing our best. Kindness is the key to dismantling exploitative systems that treat people as disposable. Kindness is the key to building something better.

It need not be dramatic. Small injections of kindness into your normal day will have a significant influence on the people around you. It’s also a self-empowering thing to do. When you give with confidence, you also get to feel better.


Finding energy

Experiencing a lack of energy can become a problem for all kinds of reasons, without those reasons being obvious. I find it pays to start with the physical considerations and work from there when trying to deal with this.  It isn’t always possible to figure out the cause and deal with it directly, but these sorts of things are always worth checking and tend to help.

Getting more rest and more sleep can help a lot, even if the problem isn’t a lack of them. Emotional and mental processing can take time and energy, so gentle down-time can help fix a number of things that may be exhausting you.

Good food, being properly hydrated and being at the right temperature for you, are all really helpful things. If I’m low, I’m more likely to feel cold and will benefit from warming up. Washing may be restorative.

Sometimes it helps to stimulate yourself with some moderate activity. I suffer poor circulation and I definitely benefit, some days, from being more active rather than less. It’s a case of determining whether it will benefit you. Moving the blood around can encourage healing. Sometimes a bit of adrenaline is the right answer.

If my brain is tired then I try to do things that are mentally restful – here physical activity can be a great help, especially anything you can do at a gentle pace. I find crafting helpful, but reading isn’t reliably good when I’m brain-tired. Also be wary of mind numbing responses – shite TV, alcohol and the like can feel like a relief at the time but they aren’t giving you anything restorative. Escapism is fine, but make sure it feeds you.

I can feel low when I’m under-stimulated mentally. In which case, a creative challenge, exposure to creative work, or something I can get my teeth into is the answer. Boredom can also suck away energy, and generate apathy, so needs watching for – if you’re dealing with yourself as though you are exhausted when really you’re just devoid of enthusiasm, you can end up doing all the wrong things and making yourself feel worse.

Low emotional states can be protective. They can be a response to overload and be a way of stepping back from more than you can bear. The answer to a loss of emotional energy is seldom to be found in pushing against that. Often the best answer to look at your simplest and most physical needs and take care of those, and wait for your feelings to catch up.

Sometimes there’s a degree of trial and error in finding out what you need to change in order to improve your energy levels on any given occasion. There’s no universal right answer here, and what you need may vary from one occasion to another. Even if you can’t pull yourself up, taking care of your most basic needs will give you the best possible resources to help you cope. Take it gently. Be patient with yourself. Don’t imagine you should be other than you are, and don’t feel if you can’t find a reason, there isn’t one. Humans are complicated things, and perfect self awareness in times of difficulty is ambitious to say the least.


Love and the drama llama

Drama llamas are creatures who feel a desperate need to be centre stage, and who will whip anything up into a whirlwind if it means they can stand in the middle of it and draw attention. People who create drama, or amplify it are exhausting to deal with.

I’ve watched on a fair few occasions now as people doing drama have spun their whirlwinds and pushed away the people who were close to them. It’s easiest to do drama with your nearest and dearest and to cast people you know in whatever roles best suit your needs. Most often what the drama-addict seems to do is cast people who were on their side as villains, attackers, abusers and so forth. I note with interest that drama llamas are more likely to assume victim roles than cast themselves as heroes of their own stories.

While I was pondering the mechanics of being a drama llama, it was suggested to me that all drama llamas really want is to be loved. This may be so – it’s such a fundamental human motivation. However, the process of creating drama tends to drive people off rather than drawing them in. If the desire is for love, then the method is inherently self-defeating.

It is easy to mistake attention for love. This is a thing to watch out for when dealing with small children, who are motivated by attention, and will keep acting out to get attention even if the attention isn’t pleased with them. If we don’t get attention for being good, or just for being ourselves, we may seek it by other means. Patterns for life can be set early on, and if you’ve learned this as a way of being it will take some unpicking. The person who seeks attention in ways that elicit less love may be stuck in a cycle of attention seeking, love-damaging behaviour and be unable to break out of it.

I don’t know how anyone stood on the outside of this can make a difference. You can’t save a drama llama from themselves by pouring love over them. I’ve yet to see a drama llama respond well to love from any source.  It may be that this can only be changed from within, that a person with these patterns has to see them and want to change them, and that from outside all you can do is feed the story. You can stay, and be an actor in the drama, you can leave and be a villain and reinforce the feeling of victimhood. You can ask the drama llama to step up and be a hero, and you’ll be manipulating or mistreating them. I have no idea what a winning move is, I’ve never seen one.

We all have stories about who we are and how life works. Often, it is the most dysfunctional stories that we all seem to cling to the hardest. Perhaps because these are stories grown out of suffering, that in some way serve to make sense of an original wound. We cling to the story because we prefer it to challenging the story. We may be protecting someone else. Or, if we’ve worked with a story for long enough, we may now be protecting ourselves from feeling the shame that would come from admitting the story was useless or wrong.

There is no saving someone who does not want to be saved. There is no healing someone who does not want to be healed. You cannot change the story of someone who does not want their story to change.


Toxic things

Nature is full of toxic things. Some of them will kill any of us, some will only make a few of us sick. Sometimes those same toxic things can be used for healing by those who know what they’re doing. The poisonous foxglove gives us the medicinal digitalis.

For some people, bee stings are unpleasant, while for others they can prove fatal. Even plants that many people find beneficial – like clove and garlic, can turn out to be toxic to some of us. I have terrible trouble with cloves. At the same time, I have a far lower reaction to stinging nettles than is normal.

What proves indigestible for one person, may be the best thing imaginable for another. What drives one body into violent allergic reaction may heal and nurture another body.

I think sometimes this is true with people, as well. Some people are toxic to anyone they encounter. Some people produce reactions in a few, and not in everyone. Some of the people in our lives come like bee stings, and a lot depends on whether we’re fatally allergic to that. Some people may contain nuts…

As with the rest of the poisonous natural world, sometimes toxicity in other people can act as a healing catalyst. Not that this necessarily lets them off the hook. Sometimes what we find toxic in others has more to do with what’s going on inside us in the first place than ever it does with them. But, just as I have to avoid cloves for my own wellbeing, there are also people it’s better if I don’t engage with.

We need to know what we find toxic, for our bodies and for our emotional lives. We won’t all find the same things affect us in the same ways. How you react is entirely yours to own and be informed by. You shouldn’t feel any more obliged to deal with a person who makes you uncomfortable than you would feel obliged to eat a food that does ghastly things to your insides. However, it’s always important to remember that your personal reaction may not be a measure of the thing as a whole. My allergy to cloves doesn’t make cloves a toxic, dangerous food that should be banned. My aversion to some people doesn’t make them terrible people, either.

However, my aversion to air pollution for example, is very different. None of us do well with polluted air. None of us do well with abusive people, or unsolicited physical violence. Some kinds of toxicity are limited and personal. Some kinds of toxicity aren’t good in any context or useful by any measure. If we can glean some good from a situation, it doesn’t make it any less toxic, it’s just a measure of our own determination to make something better.


Healing challenges

When there’s just the one thing wrong with you, healing can be fairly straightforward. However, when multiple things go wrong, there can be conflicts within your body. To give a simple example – if your back needs you to lie flat, but you have a stinking cold and can’t breathe easily unless propped up. When the side effects from the ideal medication interact with some other problem and you have no options.

There are a number of things I need to maintain my mental health. I need to walk and spend time outside. I need social time. I need to be creative and I need things that are mentally stimulating. None of this goes well with any kind of bodily illness. Needing bed rest and needing time with people do not easily combine. If I stay put and focus on getting my body well at the expensed of my mental health, this doesn’t go well for me. Equally, poor bodily health will undermine my mental health every time.

This is one of the reasons that unsolicited medical advice from random people can be such a miserable nuisance. Especially when said people are pushy and adamant that they have the magic cure for your ills and get angry with you if you say no to them. Because they didn’t know about the inner conflicts you have, or the things that won’t work with the magic cure. It’s no use telling someone to do yoga if being told what to do with their body is a major panic trigger (this has happened to me). It’s no good telling someone who also struggles with low blood pressure to take something that will, as a side effect, lower their blood pressure.

People with complex, multiple illnesses don’t tend to list off everything that’s wrong. Sometimes, people just want the relief that comes from being able to say ‘this is really shit right now.’ It’s no good insisting they should cover their face in bees if you don’t know how they respond to bee stings…

Pushing medical ‘solutions’ onto people who are ill can be incredibly bullying and demoralising. It’s the kind of bullying that hides behind the lies of ‘I’m only doing it to help you’ or ‘for your own good’ while offering no help and no good. Sharing information is always a good thing. ‘This helped me’ can be useful. The problems start when we insist people act on our information and refuse to hear their reasons for not wanting to.


Talking Down, or Lifting Up

There’s often a large verbal component to bullying and abuse. What is said is often key to keeping a victim silent. That may take the obvious form of threats – if you tell then there will be consequences. It can be more subtle. An ongoing rubbishing of a person’s feelings, needs, preferences, likes, values and so forth can really grind a person down. The more of it there is – the more people are involved, the longer the time frame, the more influential the bullies are, the more damage is taken. It can facilitate other kinds of abuse, if you’re too crushed to know it isn’t fair.

If the people you love (parents, partner, ‘friends’) tell you that you are silly and make a fuss, over react, are melodramatic, then you may start to question whether your responses to them are fair. It’s easier to assault a person who doesn’t trust their own judgement. If they call your favourite things stupid and worthless, you take damage. If they laugh at your clothes, or your cooking, or the music you like, it can all add up. Enough of this undermining knocks a person’s confidence and dents their self esteem. Eventually, confidence and self esteem can be destroyed by mockery and ridicule. Bullies will also try to isolate their victims so no alternative views are available. They may do this while saying they are the only one who really loves the victim, the only one who could understand them or put up with them.

This kind of damage is hard to recover from alone. It’s pretty much impossible to get over it without first getting away from it. A person needs the chance to hear something other than criticism and putdowns before they can rebuild a sense of self-worth. In the meantime, if I’m anything to go by then overthinking and paranoia can be issues. It is hard to hear a compliment when you’re waiting for the sting in its tail. It’s hard to trust someone who is building you up not to be setting you up for a fall. It takes years of safety to build a new normal. It takes multiple people telling all sorts of much more positive stories to undo the work of long term bullying.

There are people who default to uplifting. Who, given half a chance will compliment and encourage and gently prod you in the right direction. They are an antidote to the people who only belittle and knock down. People with the courage and care to keep uplifting even when the person they’re dealing with is too bruised to know what to do with it. People generous enough not to be put off when the frightened soft animal body they are dealing with reacts defensively and with fear.

I want to be that second sort of person. I realise that the key to this is not to take it personally when someone else flails. To learn how to make good decisions about what is intended to hurt, and what comes from a place of hurt is essential. I can’t afford to deal with people who intend to hurt me, but I can afford not to take things to heart that come from other people’s wounds. I’ve got this wrong in all kinds of ways, and there is nothing to do but learn and try to do better.

There will always be people who show up making helpful noises, but who have no desire to help. People who expect others to magically fix as soon as they step in and who are disappointed, even angry when it doesn’t go that way. Healing is slow and takes patience. Hearts and minds are slower to heal than bodies. For the people who were generous and patient enough with me to stick with my often brutal healing process, and not give up on me, I have enormous gratitude. It’s also taught me a lot about the good one person can do for another in the simple choice to lift them up rather than knocking them down.