Tag Archives: wellbeing

Learning to like myself

For most of my life, I’ve not much liked myself. I mistrust my judgement and my motives. I feel I have to justify my choices. I never feel like I’m doing enough, giving enough and that alongside this I am a mostly inconvenient nuisance. Worrying about what I cost financially goes back a long way. Aged eleven I started keeping a diary because it helped me ascertain whether I could justify my existence on a day to day basis. I worry about being fake and fraudulent and making too much fuss and not being stoical enough and not working hard enough. I don’t like my face or my body shape either and there are lots of ways in which my body is a difficult place to be.

(And I wonder, when I share things like this if anyone is going to have a go at me for being attention seeking, or feeling sorry for myself, or not trying harder to be positive… because that all happens.)

Just in this last year or so, I’ve started having small windows of something entirely different. Usually it’s prompted by something I’ve done that has demonstrably gone well. I get bursts of time when I think I’m a decent person and that it is possible to enjoy being me. It is surprising, and the impact in terms of my feelings of wellbeing is dramatic. It also gives me some sense of what it might be like to go round feeling like a good person who is entitled to exist and be happy.

Depression has been with me for a long time. It may be with me for the rest of my life. But, these windows of getting to feel ok are dramatic and remarkable things. I really had no idea that was available. Prior to experiencing it, I did not imagine it existed, and I did not know that I was not even seeing that could be a thing. If I can do it for a few hours here and there, perhaps I can do more of it. Perhaps I can get to a place of not mostly feeling bad about who and how I am. Perhaps I can do enough things I can feel that good about that the impact continues for longer. I don’t know, but it feels worth trying.

Community and conflict

Most of us in English speaking countries do not live in tight knit communities where people depend on each other to survive. As a consequence, unlike most of our ancestors we can afford not to be too invested in the idea of community. When things go wrong, we can just move on to another space. What this overlooks of course is the deep feeling of unrootedness and un-belonging that comes from changing your social context to deal with conflict. We might not need our communities to survive the winter, but we do need them for emotional wellbeing.

It’s easy to see conflict in personal terms, and understand it purely as being about those directly involved. Two people appear to fall out, and so we take the moral high ground by not getting involved, not taking sides, not asking what happened. If one of the people involved pulls away and leaves, we shrug, and say it’s a shame, and carry on with life. We all bear the losses quietly, because this is normal. We all bear the impact of the original problem, directly or indirectly.

One of the things this does is to tacitly support bullying and abuse. If one person mistreats another and we all nobly sit on the fence and refuse to pass judgement, we enable misbehaviour. It is the victim who will be pushed out. The person who was acting out will do it again, and probably get away with it again. This is not in anyone’s interests and does not make for a good community.

If we recognise that all relationships are held in a wider community context, we can look at them differently. It does not seem so acceptable for a community as a whole to react to a conflict by shrugging its shoulders. It becomes necessary for the community to find out what’s going on, make judgements and take action. These may be small measures to smooth over troubles and build bridges. There may be larger moves called for to challenge unacceptable behaviour. It may be necessary to identify what is intolerable.

If someone bullies, exploits, abuses, controls or otherwise mistreats a person, it is not because of something inherent in the victim. It is because the abusive person is an abusive person. They can and will do that again. If a person lacks the experience, empathy or insight to navigate relationships well, they will keep having the same problems – either because they don’t hold the boundaries they need, or because they don’t deal well with others. Either way, it helps when the people around them respond to this and take on some responsibility for fixing it.

I’ve been in communities that shrug shoulders over conflict. I’ve watched people leave those spaces in all kinds of states of distress and discomfort. I’ve been the person who leaves. I’ve also been in spaces with people who take responsibility for the wellbeing of the community as a whole, and who wade in when things get difficult. I’ve seen problems solved, and people challenged in good ways, to do better. I’ve seen vulnerable people supported, and socially awkward people helped. I’ve seen confidence built, and boundaries fostered. I’ve seen wellbeing improved, and the communities in question grow stronger for making the choice to act in these ways.

The Power of Sleep

Sleep has a huge effect on both mental and physical health. Sleeping in darkness is profoundly good for you, while shift patterns that mess about with your sleep are seldom good for a person. Sleep facilitates healing, learning and general bodily functioning. And yet… we have invasive street lighting so many houses are not dark unless you get blackout curtains. We have a noisy culture that makes sleep difficult in urban environments. There is pressure to work ever longer hours, and we create over stimulated environments that make it harder for us to settle and sleep. Many people do not get the recommended eight hours a night. I find it shocking that hospitals expose patients to light and noise at night in a way that makes sleeping there very difficult. I’m not going to go through and diligently source all of this, forgive me, but there’s nothing obscure here and google is your friend…

Not enough sleep can mean some or all of the following effects: Poorer metabolism function leading to weight gain. A few nights of poor sleep is enough to have a discernible impact. Tired people are also more likely to snack to try and maintain energy, which doesn’t help. Reduced learning ability. Particularly an issue for students, but we are all learning all the time, or we could be. Much sorting of information and consolidating of learning happens during sleep. The more sleep deprived you are, the less able to reason you become and the more unstable your emotions are likely to be, leading to higher risk of depression and other mental health problems. Impaired judgement and impact on decision making skills also a likely outcome. Not getting enough sleep puts stress on the body, so if you have higher blood pressure, that adds to the problem, and also makes it harder to get over illness.

There are specific ailments underpinned by poor sleep. Insomnia in and of itself counts as a medical condition, and turns up alongside depression and anxiety – often in a circular relationship, rather than linear cause and effect. I find there’s a direct correlation between how much sleep I get, and how much physical pain I experience. I notice that I am less emotionally functional when sleep deprived. My brain becomes so dysfunctional without sleep that after a while I start to hallucinate – which is not unusual, but dangerous for people who are driving, working heavy machinery and the like. People die on the roads all the time because sleep deprivation slows reflexes and impairs judgement.

Here we are, with an obesity epidemic, and with depression and anxiety such common ailments as to be becoming part of normal life experience. Yet no one seems to be talking about the simplest, cheapest, most available intervention capable of helping a lot of people. It won’t solve all problems, but a culture of good sleeping would make a lot of difference. But we don’t do that, we dish out pills, and adverts for yet more bleepy apps to put on your phone, and we play more games, and crawl into our beds too wired to sleep, only occasionally wondering what went wrong with our lives. I’ve lived with chronic sleep deprivation, with late night computer games and pressure to work all hours. It did hideous things to me, and yet we are showing each other images, all the time, of people living as normal in over stimulated environments, and we keep piling on the noise.

Seek now your blanket, and your feather bed… and let me point you at one of my favourite songs… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7D_fJr12MYs with the lovely Emily Smith singing Bill Caddick’s classic song about sleep and dreaming.

Healing Work

As a culture we’re passive about healing. We expect to show up at the doctors and get some pills, or some surgery that will make the problem go away. Or we want a magic herb, wand or laying on of hands to the same effect. We say ‘healing work’ when we mean the work that healers do, when perhaps we should be more willing to apply it to ourselves. We all get sick. Many of us will experience mental health problems too. Healing work is something we could all do with paying some attention to.

There are a lot of ailments that can be tackled, and if not sorted then alleviated by lifestyle changes. Diet, exercise and sleep patterns have a lot of influence. A good diet isn’t merely about weight, it’s about giving your immune system some decent raw material to work with.
Exercise isn’t just about weight either, keeping the heart healthy, working off stress, building physical confidence, keeping mobile. We do a lot of healing work when we sleep. If we don’t give time to sleep, how do we expect to heal in a timely fashion? Diet, exercise and sleep all impact on mental health, which in turn impacts our ability to deal with other health challenges.

It is work. It takes effort and discipline to try and change your lifestyle, change harmful thinking habits, and maintain wellness. This needs recognising. People who expect the magical fix (from the doctors or the reiki) will get disheartened by the lack of a magical cure all, and won’t stick at doing the needful work. There are no ‘cures’ there are things that supress symptoms, ways of cutting out problem parts of the body, things that boost the immune system and things that prevent you getting the disease in the first place. Whatever route you go, your body has work to do, healing from the experience and sometimes from the knock on effects of the treatment – as with cancer, or having an operation.

I’ve been trying to fix my head for years now. I’ve had brief stints on medication, had cognitive behavioural therapy interventions (all on paper) had one to one counselling, time with a support group, self help books… and I’m still not there. Depression and anxiety continue to flare, affecting my body as well as my mind, and limiting what I can do. There are days, I confess, when it feels pointless to keep fighting this stuff. Then I stop and look back and think about how much more ill I was a year ago, two years, three… I’ve come a very long way. The effort that went in was worth it, and I remind myself that it’s going to take more effort to go the rest of the distance, and that it can be done.

It doesn’t help that we aren’t really taught to feel responsible for our bodies. We could take huge strain off the health care systems just by learning how to look after ourselves, learning how to work at being well. Maybe not all the time, but enough of the time that we aren’t flirting constantly with disease. That would mean taking stress seriously too. Stress is not good for your immune system, heart, nerves. Stress begets mental illness, makes us sleepless so we don’t heal, makes us feel we can’t stop to take care of ourselves. If we took stress seriously we might have to face the uncomfortable truth that a lot of workplaces are contributing to the ill health of employees in big ways, and then it might be possible to sue, and big business isn’t going to like that. So keep taking the magic pills, and don’t ask any awkward questions…

Rethinking my Depression

I’ve been wrestling with depression on and off for years now. It’s not a welcome addition to life, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to manage it – CBT, counselling, talking to the doctor… I’ve managed to stay away from anti-depressants. I’ve also put in time trying to understand it, working on the theory that if I grasp what causes it, I can reduce if not eliminate the problem. A significant part of what went into making me ill came from outside, a consequence of the behaviour and actions of others. I had no control over that, and attempting to step away brought me several years of hard struggle, which made things worse.

However, this stuff from outside is a contributing factor, not the whole story. I observe that depression for me is a direct consequence of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. Sometimes just the one, often a combination. It’s what happens when there’s simply nothing left to push with, and I keep trying to push anyway. I think depression, for me, is a manifestation of my body saying ‘no, just not possible, we are stopping now.’ If the only way to make me stop is to put me on the floor… well, sometimes I end up on the floor. Finding I am down, I then feel useless, powerless, vulnerable, incapable and of course the inspiration dries up too. That makes me feel worse, creating an emotional pressure that keeps me down for longer.

I tend to assume that I should be able to keep going. I should be able to work and keep house/boat and be a full time parent, wife, lover, author, Druid, volunteer and do everything that needs doing. The ‘what needs doing’ is vast beyond anything I could do, there’s a whole world out there. I am a finite being who has spent a good decade refusing to recognise that simple, critical fact. I don’t have infinite supplies of energy. I cannot take an infinite amount of emotional battering. I cannot run my mind at fever pitch forever. When my body gets close to its limits, the answer is not to always try and push further. Maybe that’s worth doing sometimes, but not, I am concluding, every time. Every day.

I was very, very ill over Christmas. I think I had pneumonia. It took me several days of trying to get on as normal with a desperately ill body, increasingly struggling to breathe, before I admitted that I couldn’t cope. That’s normal for me. Often I do push through but there comes a time when if you keep trying to do that, it can really, actually kill you. It’s that whole being a finite entity thing again.

I’m going to try and rethink my depression – not as failure and shortcoming or proof of inadequacy, but as a simple, biological response to running on empty. If I feel depressed, I need to slow down and be gentle with me until I feel better, not try to keep running anyway. I’ve mostly moved away from situations where there is any external whip cracking, and the emotional pressure from outside is passably low at the moment. I can try to keep it that way, but life does what it does. If I allowed myself a bit more slack in the system to begin with, I wouldn’t be so exposed when unexpected things come in from outside. I’d have more resilience. I am going to be less tolerant of external pressures and demands, too.

Underneath this I think there’s an issue of how I value myself and how, as a consequence, I have permitted others to treat me. I had a lot of help with the under valuing, but I can step away from that and rethink. I do not have to be bound by the opinions of a vocal minority with questionable motives. I have no doubt that I will on occasion push to my limits and beyond, there are times when it’s called for and it makes sense, but it’s not a viable way of life. Other people finding me inadequate should not be the only factor here. I need to accept that if I do as much as I can sustain, that should be good enough most of the time, and if it isn’t, I’m not the only person who can shoulder responsibility. While I value myself only in terms of usefulness and achievement, I can’t actually look after myself properly. I wouldn’t ask this of anyone else, so why am I doing it to myself?

Druidry and healing

This week I’ve been talking to some lovely people who run a healing space, and they had questions about healing within the druid tradition. Now, I know there are strands in the druid weave where healing is very much the focus, particularly on the ovate side, and that there are druids who work as healers. I also think that in New Age practice, there is a huge emphasis on healing work, and I wonder about this. Partly because healing is what you do after damage. Druidry, for me, is more about the day to day living, and not getting to a place of damage should be part of that.

Relationship within druidry includes relationship with self. We can’t be in good relationship with the rest of the planet if we abuse, neglect and mistreat our own minds and bodies. Lack of care for self opens the way to illness and ongoing damage while care taken will work to minimize risk, and also helps us cope with anything we couldn’t dodge. I’ve been on the wrong side of this, unable to look after my own most basic needs and conscious of the wounding that caused. Good health, bodily, mentally and spiritually, depends on self care. In order to take care of the self, you have to think that’s worth doing, you need self esteem, self respect, a sense of usefulness, some reason to value your own condition.

Druidry is also very much about creativity and inspiration, and I think this is a huge wellbeing consideration too. There’s nothing like being trapped in a situation to push you towards distress and sickness. Inspiration is the tool for escape, for re-writing the rules, reinventing the job, the relationship, the lifestyle, so that wellness can follow.

In terms of mental health, community and a sense of belonging can make a lot of difference. Emotional support and recognition can keep a marginal person sane. Being heard helps to ward off depression. The work we do in ritual, hearing and supporting each other, holding circles of community, helps to keep us well, and upholds the self esteem essential for self-care.

There’s plenty of mainstream science that says being outside is good for you. A little walk relieves stress, and is good exercise. Time in green spaces is good for mental health. A little dancing, meditating, or drumming is good for the body as well. Many of the things that we do as part of our druidry, has beneficial effects in terms of health.

I think when we make healing into an event, focusing on the action of a few hours or days, we do ourselves a disservice. Wellness is not a thing to tag on as an afterthought. It’s not something to do once a week for half an hour. A good life has wellness at its heart. Granted, there are illnesses and setbacks that won’t be triumphed over just by application of regular druidry, but there is no ailment out there that isn’t alleviated to some degree by living well. So for me, druidry is less about healing work, more about not being so vulnerable to sickness in the first place. No amount of magical or new age healing work will save a person who will not change their life. I was unwell for years because my diet was wrong, I was sleep deprived, living with things that made me anxious, and things that caused me misery. No amount of healing intervention would have done more than paper over the cracks. Only a lifestyle change, and a recognition of the need to take myself seriously could get a healing process under way, and take me into a new phase of life where I am not continually being damaged.

I think the move to seek healing can be a way of starting that process, the recognition of problems, and the recognition of self as someone who merits being cared for. But ultimately, being well is a full time job, and the implications of going after it can be enormous.

Natural Habitat

Natural Habitat

Any conversation about preserving wild creatures or plants inevitably includes thoughts about habitat. Nothing exists in isolation, and if the ecosystem, the landscape and the relationships are not preserved, the ‘special’ creature of interest will not thrive. Nothing thrives.

Somehow in the midst of this, we’ve taken to thinking of habitat as something other. Somewhere else. Where the birds and creatures live. We forget that we too are creatures. We are not separate from the ecosystems.

We’ve been creating our own habitats for so long, that the idea of a natural habitat for humans, at first glance, seems weird, if not irrelevant. By our very natures, we do not have natural habitats, right? Wrong. All the things that harm creatures, harm us because we are creatures too. Pollution, excess of noise, too much light at night, loss of green spaces, loss of freedom. We do not thrive in depressing, grimy, polluted places. Mental and physical health are improved by time outside, time with trees.

We’re so used to our nests and caves that we don’t think enough about the habitat we need for human wellbeing. It has open water in it. So many people love streams, rivers, canals and the sea. We gravitate towards lakes. We need water that we can walk or sit beside. We need grass to sit upon and trees to sit under. We depend on the land for food, even if most of us don’t see that on a daily basis.

If we created our urban spaces with an eye not for immediate profit and commercial intent, but to make good habitats for humans, life would be so different. I’ve seen spaces that made me feel it could be done – the beautiful, vibrant space that is The Custard Factory in Birmingham, or the area there around Gas Street Basin. Public spaces, people, trees, buildings, no two things identical.

We shouldn’t be talking about preserving the habitats of this or that creature, as though we are doing them a favour. This is our habitat too. Even if we can’t find the empathy to care about anything else, we ought to care enough about ourselves to maintain spaces we can thrive in, rather than places that engender depression, starve our souls, and make our bodies ill.