Tag Archives: resilience

Brains, illness and resilience

Mental illness is in no small part a loss of control over your own thought processes. However, the degree to which simply regaining control of your thoughts it the ‘cure’ for this is one I think could stand questioning. So much of what we do at the moment to help with ‘mental health’ starts from the assumption that the thoughts are irrational and are the problem to be fixed.

Like a lot of ill people, my struggles with mental illness have everything to do with my experiences. I didn’t get here on my own. I am afraid of finding myself in situations akin to situations I have already been in. Some of my coping mechanisms are a bit dysfunctional.

I know there’s a school of thought that goes in for the idea that the answer to distress is to teach people how to be more resilient. The right mental attitude will get you though! The trouble with this is that as an approach it denies that other people have agency too. The only person who has to change here is the one being hurt, while everyone else can blithely get on with whatever they were doing.

Getting control of your distressed thoughts can indeed make it more possible to cope. It can also be a process of learning to be responsible for what’s being done to you, rather than demanding change. When the focus is on controlling your own mind, there’s little encouragement to look at what might be changed so you don’t have to be in this mess in the first place.

Sometimes what’s most helpful is to have the time and space to sit with the distress. Get to know it, find out what it’s made of and why it’s happening. It’s better not to have to train yourself out of your own innate responses. Sometimes, it is possible to simply ask for help and have that help manifest. I know from experience that changes in the world to solve the problems causing the distress get a lot more done than me trying to be more resilient.

There’s a lot we can do to help each other with all of this even if we don’t know exactly what someone else is up against. Tell people that you care about them and value them. Tell them that they matter, that what they do is good and valued. Tell people that you need them, appreciate them and respect them. Encourage, uplift, and praise the people around you every chance you get. There’s a different kind of resilience that comes from all of this, one that doesn’t depend on having to push constantly against our own distress. It’s easier to have resilience when you are supported, rather than trying to make resilience in face of desperation.


Community and personal resilience

Being resilient is awful. Being encouraged to be resilient tends to mean making yourself keep going when you don’t really have the resources. Be that time, energy, money, health, bodily strength – keeping pushing on when you don’t have enough to push with is soul destroying. The longer you have to do it, the more damage you take. If you are well enough resourced to deal with a thing then you aren’t being resilient by dealing with it, you’re coping just fine.

Difficulty and challenge are inevitable. We all face setbacks. We all get knocked down. Having to pick yourself up and trudge on is not the only answer. Resilience is something we should be doing collectively. If we help each other, then it will less often be the case that the person who is least able to cope is obliged to bear the weight of a thing.

In a resilient community, people support each other and cover for each other. You do what you find easiest for yourself and others, and maybe someone else can pick up the thing you find prohibitively difficult. Or at least you don’t have to do it alone, if it is unavoidable. Rather than finding individual solutions to problems, we become each other’s solutions. Of course this depends on people being kind to each other, and being honest about what they can and cannot do. When we see it as an honour to help those around us, not an imposition, everything changes.

Imagine instead of having to crawl back up when you’ve been knocked down, being lifted by those around you. Imagine finding the ways in which you are especially capable and can help others. When we all lean a little on each other, we are collectively stronger than we could ever have been while standing alone.


Resilience and Efficiency

Efficiency tends to make people think of saving money and doing the most for least. The trouble with supposedly ‘efficient’ systems is they don’t have any slack in them, so as soon as there’s a problem or a setback, there’s trouble.

In workplaces this can mean having to work overtime if something goes wrong with a project or someone is ill. In healthcare it means not having the beds or staff to deal with something out of the ordinary. Like a pandemic. In education it can mean things like teachers not having the time to comfortably adapt to changes – as we’ve seen in the last year. In the short term, this kind of efficiency can seem cost effective. As soon as circumstances change, it doesn’t work and the cost can be high.

Resilience means being able to adapt. It means being able to afford to take time off when you’re ill, and not having to work people to exhaustion to make up the gap. Resilient approaches are also kinder, gentler ways of working. It assumes you should have options and scope for flexibility and that maybe short term profit isn’t always the most important thing. Assuming you’ll need the option to cope is a good idea, rather than just demanding more from people in times of difficulty.

Efficiency can also result in the normalising of crisis. You set something up so that it is running at capacity. You know perfectly well that things never run smoothly all the time, so the whole approach assumes that the answer it to pile on more pressure in times of difficulty. Once things become difficult, crisis becomes normal because there’s really no room for recovery or getting back on top of things This leads to people always having to work overtime, feeling constantly pressured to skip breaks,  and other such toxic things. Quality of life is undermined by work systems that are designed in this way. What is put forward as efficient can often turn out to be exploitative.

Other kinds of efficient systems require people to work like machines, operating at rates that leave no time for being sociable, or thinking about anything, or anything else human. We shouldn’t be asking people to work like machines – and in the long run this also breaks people, which isn’t efficient for us as a society. It certainly isn’t resilient, either.

The idea of resilience may be a good way to counter toxic narratives around efficiency. Resilience suggests pragmatism. If people aren’t prepared to treat other people kindly, they might be prepared to consider that resilience is a better strategy than short term efficiency.


Contemplating resilience

I’m writing this on a Friday morning. This is part of a new cunning plan about how I organise my time, and it has paid off well. I’ve shuffled about so that I don’t have to be online at any specific time in the morning. Anything that needs to happen before lunchtime is set up the day before, or earlier. This has worked out well. It means if I have a sleepless night, or am otherwise ill, I can get to the computer whenever, and nothing is messed up.

This shift also means that if I’m having a bad day for concentration, I’m under no pressure. This is as well – this is a blog post brought about by being short of useful ideas, written on a day when I’m in a lot of body pain and don’t have much energy. It’s a slow process, having ideas and writing.

I’ve become much more possessive of my time and energy. I’ve had to, there just isn’t enough of it to go round. I’ve started asking ‘what’s in it for me?’ What do I want? What do I need? These are not questions I am good at answering, but I’m going to keep asking them.

Flexibility helps. Giving myself more wriggle room for the really bad days, helps. Slack in the system helps. We live in a society that prizes efficiency, but, what efficiency really means is nowhere to go if something goes wrong. Efficiency doesn’t give you enough hospital beds in a pandemic. It doesn’t give you resilience in face of sudden change. It doesn’t give you options. Working when ill isn’t as efficient as taking time off to recover, but an overly efficient system won’t let you have time off. Ironically, trying to be efficient isn’t efficient as soon as the situation changes. There’s a lot to be said for trying to be resilient in the first place.

For me, resilience looks like being able to afford to stop and rest whenever I am too tired to continue. Days off at need would be helpful, but I’m not quite up to that, yet. I can work very short days when I need to, and on the day of writing this post, I’m contemplating that choice. I could push on with an interesting piece of work I have on the go, but I’ll do a better job if I’m not so tired. I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t tired, but it was probably more than a year ago.

Working hard doesn’t save anyone. It just grinds you down and reduces your quality of life. If your financial situation is so bad that you have no choice but to work long hours for little pay – that’s truly awful. I’ve done some of that kind of work, and I know that we need radical political change. No one should have to break their physical or mental health to be able to afford to eat. No one should be worked to death so that the billionaires, the shareholders and the people who profit from other people’s labour can keep doing that.

I want everyone to be able to take time off when they need it. I want everyone who is ill to be able to afford to rest and recover. Financially vulnerable people working when ill have certainly been part of how covid is getting around and a kinder, fairer system would have protected us all from the consequences of that.


Who should change?

CW abuse

I’ve been poking about on the NHS website. I notice that medication to deal with trauma is something they offer to victims who can’t have meaningful therapy because their domestic abuse is ongoing. I’ve read page after page about coping with triggering and how to manage PTSD symptoms on websites designed to help people with mental health problems. I’ve read what content there is about how to support sufferers – be patient with them, listen – good stuff, but lacking something.

What I’m not seeing is the mental health advice about not triggering people. I’m not seeing the pages about dealing with workplace culture and bullying. I’m not seeing the advice to people about how to curb abusive behaviour and treat partners better. The Relate website is full of advice about what to do if you are upset, frustrated or annoyed in your relationship. It doesn’t say much about what to do if you are terrified, or in overwhelming distress, or what to do if your partner ‘makes you angry’ so that you feel justified hitting them.

It’s always the victim who has to change. It’s the victim who is expected to do the work, put the experience into perspective, take the meds, and become more resilient. Where is the content about how we do more to look after each other?

Everything I have thus far found online about PTSD therapy seems to start from the assumption that it was a one off event, never likely to happen again and that once you feel that you’ll be fine. Given the stats on abuse, child abuse, domestic abuse and people being made ill by their workplaces, it’s hard to see how this can be helpful. There are so many traumatic things people go through that aren’t one off events, but part of their daily lives.

If you’re wounded and struggling, all I can really offer you right now is solidarity and this thought – just because the majority of resources are focused on fixing you, does not mean it is you who are broken. The sick society that harmed you, is broken. The people who inflicted the damage, are broken. You need to feel safe – you should be able to feel safe. Safety does not really come from you changing the story about what happened, or working to minimise it. Safety comes from living in a culture that doesn’t encourage, condone and generally facilitate abuse and bullying. There’s nothing more healing and restorative than getting to feel safe.


Personal resilience or community resilience

I’ve been in a few situations now that were difficult for me and where people who meant well came in to try and help me improve my personal resilience. They had advice to give. They wanted me to see it from the other person’s perspective, they wanted me to be more understanding. What this also meant is that people who had acted inappropriately were left unchallenged. People who had wanted to use my time unfairly, people who had been sexist, or had gone on the offensive in inappropriate ways were not called out. It wasn’t about them – they were fine. As the person who had a problem with it, the pressure was on me to be more resilient.

I know my experience isn’t unique. ‘Resilience’ is what you have to do as an individual when people who could make changes to better accommodate you, won’t.

For me this is another area in which we talk about something as an individual issue not a community one and that needs to change. It really needs to be a community issue. A community is not resilient if some of its members are being sexist towards other members. Resilience means dealing with that to become something more inclusive and more robust. A resilient workforce is not one that is putting up with being worked to exhaustion, messed about by poor leadership, demoralised and generally ill treated. A resilient workforce is one that feels supported and encouraged and has the resources it needs to work well. Resilience makes a lot more sense as something we do together.

If we focus on personal resilience, we don’t have to change systems. We don’t have to challenge people who are causing the problems. If resilience is personal, we don’t have to ask about the economic context, or the fair distribution of resources. It’s easy to be persuaded that ‘helping you be more resilient’ is a good thing – when it may just be a way of making into a personal problem something that needed dealing with collectively.

There are plenty of spaces where it is considered necessary to be thick skinned, tough, macho, immune to attack and unlikely to care. What we get when we make participation dependent on such qualities, is a lot of people who can’t participate. We don’t prioritise skills, knowledge or experience in a setting that says you must be thick skinned to survive. And we can see exactly how well that serves us by looking at contemporary politics. Resilience for a community means supporting the best and most capable people so they can deploy their skills and expertise for the good of all. If you need them to be able to still do that while an incompetent boss shouts abuse at them… your priorities are all wrong.


Parenting reflections

Parenting is mostly guesswork. You may have theories, based on your experiences and observations. You might try and read a lot of books and articles. You may just unconsciously perpetuate whatever is normal in your family… and how that works in practice you likely won’t know for a lot of years.

This year has been tough for young humans in the UK. My son had his final school year disrupted, his A levels were a confusing, stressful time and he’s gone to university only to face isolation. He’s home now, to my great relief. I have been struck, repeatedly, by his maturity and resilience as he’s dealt with everything this year has thrown his way. I’m going to chalk this up as a great deal of parenting win, although much of it must be ascribed to his own nature, efforts and good thinking.

There are theories I had which, in hindsight, I think were a very good idea. I never did arbitrary authority – he was always entitled to question me and I was clear that he was always owed an explanation at the very least. His opinion always mattered – even if I couldn’t do anything with it, he was always heard and had a chance to comment on things. If I wanted to pull an ‘I know best’ I took the time to lay out my evidence and thinking. I never said ‘because I said so.’

I started on this as soon as he was talking. I answered any and all questions to the best of my ability with the most age-appropriate language I could find. I never lied to him. This wasn’t always easy. I’ve been open about having mental health problems and how best to navigate that. I’ve shared difficult emotions. He is one of the most emotionally resilient and open hearted people I know – so I feel that my emotional honesty has done him no harm at all. Likely the opposite.

Here we are, as he steps into his adult life. He trusts my judgement, and he knows he can query me on anything. He knows he can talk to me about anything and expect me to be honest with him. He knows he is heard and respected and that his opinion matters. He is going to be living with me as an adult for the foreseeable future, and that’s going to be fine, and there will be no great challenges because of the underpinnings we already have in place.

I’ve done a lot of things along the way that other people – including professionals around child wellbeing – have considered inappropriate. It is normal to lie to children and to tell them what to do, and I’ve been in some very odd situations over my refusal to do that. During the family court period, I dealt with a lot of disbelief around the idea that my son could have his own opinions that I respected, and that his opinions were not simply what I’d told him to think. What I’ve learned parenting is that if you treat children like they are people in their own right, this actually works well.


Finding my strength

It has been a testing few weeks, but I have learned some interesting things around the issue of strength. I’ve broken repeatedly. I’ve done a lot of weeping, I’ve watched my digestive system shut down under the pressure, leaving me with no energy and low blood pressure issues. I’m still here. I’ve been overwhelmed with fear, with grief, with despair, and I am still here. The measure of my strength is not my being whole and hale. The measure of my strength is what I can and will do even when I’m broken.

I’ve been broken a lot during my life. I’ve tended to think of myself as weak and fragile for breaking. I’m re-framing that at the moment. I’m seeing my brokenness in terms of my willingness to care and keep my heart open. It’s there in response to a hunger for more from life than I’ve been able to source, as well, and that might be something I can change.

I do not regret being broken. I do not regret the intensity of love that took me to that place. I would not choose to protect myself from the things that hurt me by simply not caring about them. Resilience does not have to been a closed heart or a thicker skin. Resilience can instead mean the scope not to be brought to a halt by having been broken.

There is so much that I love. There are many people that I love. There is so much to keep trying for, keeping hoping for, keep working on. No matter how heartbroken I am. No matter how exhausted. I’ve seen my capacity for hope shatter and I’ve pulled something out of that by force of will, and I’m still here.

I think today is going to be a hard one. I think one way or another, it is going to tear me open. It could define my future life. That scares me, of course. I’d be a fool not to be frightened by that. But, I know I will get through today, not because I am unbreakable, but because I know how to be broken. I know how to weep and howl. I know how not to give up. I also know that there are a lot of people invested in my not giving up, who will help me if I fall.

Tomorrow is never certain. Every day has the potential to be the day that will change everything. It’s just more obvious to me at the moment because I know exactly what’s at stake.


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.


The politics of illness

I’ve been struck by the massive and wide reaching political implications of the coronavirus. There’s a lot to think about here.

Governments that put people before profit are clearly going to take better care of their people. Leaders who believe experts and take science seriously are going to be an advantage to their populations. Societies that organise for mutual aid and protection will do better than anywhere dominated by rampant capitalism. This may change how we think about politics and politicians.

Good leadership will reduce panic and focus people on what they can usefully do. Good information will help us stay safer, slow infection rates and protect the most vulnerable. Governments that don’t do that will put their people at risk.

There are many things we’re now looking at that we could have had all along – working from home, conferencing and studying from a distance, cutting back on travel. These are things that would always have helped disabled people. There will be no excuse moving forward, for not being a good deal more inclusive – clearly we can do this. These measures also reduce the need for travel, which has huge environmental implications and again, we should have been taking this seriously already.

Western countries that have been so intolerant of people fleeing war, famine and climate crisis need to get some perspective. If we look at our own responses to this threat, we might see people in other kinds of crisis in a more compassionate light. Many people around the world suffer a lot more, with considerably more stoicism and sense than white and reasonably comfortable panic buyers around the world have been demonstrating recently.

If your healthcare is free at the point of delivery, sick people won’t be afraid to come forward. People who are identified and treated are less of a risk to others. State funded healthcare is in everyone’s interests.

If you have good laws around work and sickness, people don’t have to work when sick. All diseases, coronavirus included, won’t spread as much when ill people are allowed to take time off to recover and not infect others. Flu kills a lot of people every year – there’s a lot we could do to reduce misery and suffering if we had a better work-health culture in the first place.

If we had universal basic income it would be really easy to shut down all non-essential work for a few weeks to reduce transmission.

The more structures, networks, systems etc your country has in place for taking care of people, the easier it is to respond to an emergency. If we focus on profit and efficiency, we pay for it in terms of resilience.

Coronavirus at its worst affects breathing. It is known to hit smokers hard. Clearly, air pollution will also create increased vulnerability. Our polluted commons make us much more vulnerable to diseases. We need to recognise that human health and planet health are the same thing.

Perhaps some good can come out of all of this. Perhaps we can start recognising how much we depend on each other. Health needs to be a collective concern. It needs to be framed within the health of our world as a whole. The politics of profit and growth are killing us, and this is just another example of that playing out. We need to change how we think, and stop treating people as expendable, and economic growth as a master to be served in all possible ways.