Tag Archives mental health

Let’s throw rocks at the sea

By Posted on Location: 7min read
The Pacific Ocean, La Serena
August 2019

This morning I have spent way too much time searching the internet for a statistic in a book. The statistic is that “Depression affects as much as 80% of the population [of Inuit peoples of Greenland]” the book is Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon.

As you might have thought, I started this investigation in the notes section of the book, but for this statistic, nothing. There were references to papers on suicide – and just googling Greenland suicide rates brings up a multitude of scary reports declaring Greenland’s suicide rate to be particularly worryingly high. Depression is referenced in such papers as a factor in suicide. However, I have nothing on the actual rates of clinical (also known as major) depression in the Inuit peoples of Greenland or any context on the original statistic.

Then again, I am sceptical about rates for such things anyway

After all, there is no official record of me ever being depressed and the only official record of me being sexually abused is the little red flag that I asked to be placed on my health record.

During the winter months, the Inuit people stay inside, in their usually small houses keeping close to keep warm. The book explains that “In these circumstances of enforced intimacy, there is no place for complaining or talking about problems or for anger and accusations. The Inuit simply have a taboo against complaining. They are silent and brooding or they are storytellers given to laughter, or they talk about conditions outside and the hunt, but they almost never speak of themselves. Depression, with concomitant hysteria and paranoia, is the price paid for the intense communality of Inuit lives.”

The other day, I stood in the living room and jumped up and down

A grand simultaneous two-footed stomp – and made an angry noise. My housemate glanced up from his phone and gave me a questioning look asking, ‘What in heaven’s name are you doing?’. I apologised and said, in Spanish, that I had to release some of my frustration at our current situation so that it wouldn’t pop up in my dreams. He nodded and went back to his phone.

The next morning our conversation went something like this

Him: How many people did you kill last night?

Me: Zero. I told you. With the ‘ragghh’ no bad dreams.

‘How many people did you kill last night’ is a reference to a morning some months back when I looked worse for wear and couldn’t speak Spanish very well and eventually explained that I was shaking off an unpleasant dream in which I’d become rather murderous. ‘How many people did you kill last night’ means ‘how did you sleep?’. It’s an invitation to express how I am.

If we don’t have safe, civilised ways to acknowledge our emotions, they will either show themselves in unsafe, less-civilised manners or submerge themselves silently within and we will become numb. Acting in an unsafe, less-civilised manner is a shortcut to relationship destruction and becoming numb is the highway to depression.

Last week I stood on the beach and threw rocks at the sea.

All of us have just lost an incredible amount of our freedom

Many of us have lost much of what gives us meaning in any given week. There is a tremendous amount to feel angry about, frustrated with and much to grieve. Then there’s the anxiety that’s churning through our bloodstream. I have ulcers in my mouth, my skin looks horrific and those muscles around my neck and shoulders are stupidly tense. Routines have shattered and relationships (both with those people whom we can’t see and those whom we are now seeing much too much of) are going to be tested. Rationally I understand the need for social distancing. Yet it’s against my instincts. My body believes that acceptance is conveyed with touch and that if no one is picking the fleas out of my fur then something is terribly wrong.

The fact that everyone is currently facing the same horrible challenge doesn’t negate any individual’s emotions. It is not self-pitying to grieve the loss that we are going through. It’s entirely reasonable to be ridiculously anxious when faced with tremendous uncertainty.

There was a dead sea lion on the beach. The vultures had gored out its eyes.

Someone else being worse off than you is not an excuse not to grieve your own pain

My sister and I had a long conversation a few weeks back about the difference between complaining and expressing negative emotions. Smashing a plate on the patio is expressing emotion. Verbally, when you’re expressing an emotion you probably are referring to the name of an emotion. I feel sad. I feel frustrated. I feel hurt. If you can say the sentence using the word feel, you’re probably closer to expressing emotion. Except ‘I feel that’, is possibly ‘feel’ masquerading as ‘in my opinion’.

The wonderful lady who led the yoga retreat I went on with my mother recently wrote:

View this post on Instagram

I wanted to check in. After the news of lockdown last night in the UK I wanted to see how you were. Maybe I am still processing my own feelings. When I closed my classes down a week ago I felt devastation. So sad for the people I was going to miss, grieving for the 9 years of hard slog I had put in to build the classes up. And overwhelmed by the thought I was going to have to stay away from family. And yet people kept telling me to stay positive. I felt like screaming at them. This for me was not the time. I had to let the other emotions in and give them time to leave. If I didn’t, if I put a fake smile on and posted positivity that I didn’t feel, those emotions would get stuck. And if they were still there, how does the positivity grow? So it’s okay to cry, to feel overwhelmed, to be angry. Let them all in. Go with them. They will leave when they are ready. Then you can get your positive pants on. And let me tell you, those pants will be stronger and more elastic, they will hug you in and they won’t give you a wedgy! 😉😉 #howareyou? #lockdown #stayathome #covid_19 #stayhome #stayhealthy #staysafe #emotions #itsokaynottobeokay #muchlove

A post shared by Elizabeth Hawkins (@lemontreeyogauk) on

Not everyone is articulate about their emotions

‘We’re doing fine’ or ‘surviving’ might possibly actually mean ‘I have uncomfortable feelings but I haven’t got a clue how to speak them’ or perhaps ‘I feel ashamed of admitting what it is I am feeling’. Or it might mean ‘my feelings are none of your business’.

My dear friend Jessika recently wrote a whole lot about her struggle to express how she feels sometimes.

Complaining tends to focus more on a series of events

And has much more to do with ‘you, he, she, it, they, the virus, the government, the economic reality’. Sometimes, when it can spark positive change, it is vital. Sometimes it does nothing but wears down the people around you. Think it’s fair to say that we are all a little thin-skinned right now.

I feel frustrated that I cannot work. I am worried about what is going to happen. I hate having my freedom restricted. I feel sad that I may not see my friends here for a long time. I am angry at my own helplessness and how this crisis is going to have such a harsh economic effect on those who were already struggling.

Finding a balance between speaking and staying silent is going to be challenging

Inevitably, we’re all going to sway too far into unhealthy complaining, excessive inward absorption of our emotions and spew few too many unkind comments or stay too silent. This is the reality of being forced into this new, uncomfortable, unnatural way of living. However, regardless of the accuracy of the statistics, it’s clear to see that if we don’t manage our situation, there will be a noticeable mental health cost further down the line.

Yet, although we are undoubtedly scared, maybe this is a moment where we can learn the names of some of those tricky words: sadness, grief, loss, anger, hatred, fear. Maybe this moment where we are forced to readjust can be a moment where we learn to see our emotional states a little clearer. Maybe we can look after one another and learn to ask and answer those tricky questions like ´how many people did you kill last night?’.

Let’s throw rocks in the sea.

For some not-so-light reading:

A hazy summer: thoughts on solitude

By Posted on Location: 4min read
A road somewhere near the El Tatio geyser field near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile.
January 2020.

I have a few days alone. I like having some time to myself. I sing songs from musicals, using parts of my vocal range which would otherwise never sound and keep myself entertained. And yet, whilst I value the quiet as a precious necessity should I want to be a sane contributor to society, I do not deceive myself and believe that being alone is a comfortable experience.

Sometimes it is; sometimes I stamp my foot and get angry. There’s nobody else’s voice around, just the thoughts that bob in my mind, clashing up against one another. I can make a choice, either to be miserable with the situation or to be more tolerant of being me and show myself some love.

Which is where the real value of having some time alone comes in. For me, its necessity comes from the inevitable discomfort it brings. The day stretches out in front of me, and there is nobody else but me to fill it. My actions will be judged by nobody but myself.

Often when the opportunity of solitude arises, I choose to take a deeper look in the mirror and I choose to follow or wrestle the thoughts which have tripped me up in previous months. So when I first headed to Valparaiso, alone, I focused on why Christmas proved so emotionally challenging. It’s easy to assume that the obvious answer is the only answer, but it is rarely so. I was ratty the entire week because of an accumulation of stresses.

However, what for me was worse was how irrational it made me feel. The irrationality itself is much more threatening to me than any homesickness. Overwhelming irrationality is something I associate with my memories of mental illness. A fog of emotion blinds you, making sensible thought impossible.

In such situations, the first step is to recognise I am thinking in a delusional manner. The second is to accept that it’s defensive and that in some way or another, I feel threatened. The third step is then to focus on doing kind, loving things for myself. This includes calling the right person to listen to my needs, someone who is going to have the guts to speak to me bluntly and honestly and whose love for me isn’t conditional on me saying the right thing. By this I most often mean my sister.

Later I can return to consider why my defences have been triggered.

It is incredible how difficult it is to do any of these steps, but I have come to the decision, with the help of my moments in solitude, where I have time to reflect upon my hiccups, that this is the only method that works for me. When my mind’s a mess, there’s no point pushing onwards, I have to stop and slow down. If I don’t, I will hurt people.

One of my missions this weekend is to write out again my self-care instructions. This is where I list exactly what I need to do to ensure that I am healthy, safe and cared for. This isn’t mad, it’s how to survive my madness. This process is how I grow resilience as part of my everyday life.

It might sound excessive, but it seems, to me, a small effort to go to if I am going to avoid having a relapse into any emotional prison. I live in a country undergoing a social uprising, a long way from any long-term friend or family. I can’t afford to not be resilient and this simple method works for me.

I was particularly inspired to rewrite these instructions and think my process through from scratch, because of a conversation I had with a prison psychologist recently. He said one of the shocking things about the female inmates was how ugly they let themselves become. He was referring to the lack of self-care they showed themselves. How they gained weight in prison and abused their flesh, not bothering to show themselves any love.

My choice is to be better prepared for when the inevitable bad days happen. To have a series of habits and routine activity which keep me from getting too lost. Have a guide as such, so that I automatically know to make the phone call to someone with the capability to listen. Having days or weeks of emotional fog is part of the human condition. It doesn’t make me, or anyone else a lesser person. we do the best we can. However, it does pay to be prepared.

With such preparation, my defences take on a different appearance. They are no longer merely impulses, amid the chaotic thoughts bombarding my mind, I have some rational, safe mechanisms for looking after myself.

This well worth a few days of not always comfortable solitude and a bit of hard thinking.

The Rescue Day: How I manage when my mind begins to unravel

By Posted on Location: 5min read
Details in the walls of the Alhambra, Granada. Arabic Designs.
A glimpse of light in the dark: details in the walls in the Alhambra in Granada.
March 2019.

Here in my Southern Spanish town, you sometimes have to think ahead. On a Sunday or a festival day normality ceases. When it rains nobody goes out as, due to a lack of adequate drainage, the streets flood. During the working week, many places close mid-afternoon, and places like the post office simply don’t bother reopening until the next day.

Here you can’t depend on a 24 hour supermarket or the bus arriving on time. On festival days (or during rain) the bus may or may not choose to run. Living here means that you have to be prepared in advance.

Planning ahead is also how I manage my own, unpredictable mental health. Since last week ended with a random burst of unsleepable madness, I thought I’d reflect a little on my ‘recovery day’ process to make sure that Monday morning had no choice but to go to plan.

I’m going to briefly cover…

  1. The things I drop from my to-do list
  2. The actions I take to get me back on track
  3. The importance of good transitions

Sometimes the most important is what you don’t do

On Saturday night, before I went to bed, I wrote down a list of all the things I had to accomplish on Sunday. Then I removed everything I deemed unnecessary and could be put off. Writing this article wasn’t important enough to make the list, even though my original plan had it being edited by Sunday. Practicing Spanish was removed from the list too. Anything related to work was scribbled out. Any admin, scratched through.

It wasn’t that I was ruling out practicing Spanish, not at all, if I fancy practicing Spanish then that’s fine. But the thick black line removing it from my list affirmed that it wasn’t the priority for the day.

A rescue day, as I think of it, is not a normal day

On normal days I practice Spanish and I write articles. I stick to my bigger plan of learning goals and creative ambitions. On rescue days I rescue the little part of me that has been neglected and is screaming for attention through my sleep (or lack of sleep) and through all though ugly ways that stress makes itself known.

So what does this mean that I doing?

This morning I followed my morning routine, although much slower than normal. I had my coffee and my cereal. I watched a video about learning watercolour and I did yoga. Later I meditated.

Routine is important to me because when I’m working within a set routine I don’t need to waste energy making decisions.

Then I put my bedsheets in the washing machine and tidied my room. While the washing was whirring away I painted a pine cone and emailed my mother updating her on my life and my yoga practice. Keeping my mother vaguely in the loop is important.

The lady who I live with invited me to eat lunch with her.

In the afternoon I went out for a walk

It’s been raining here, most unexpectedly, and I perhaps lacked some fresh air. More importantly though, I needed to create space for my mind to mull over why it’s so upset. In the evening I went out for a coffee (descafeinado) and chocolate cake with a friend before going early to bed.

Which I guess doesn’t seem all that mad…

In fact it’s not all that different to what I normally would do. The difference comes in the transitions. When I’m picking myself up off the ground it’s rarely the activity that matters.

What matters is how I approach each activity

In one of his books I remember John Kabat Zinn suggesting we take special care to note the attitude we bring to the beginning of a meditation practice and the attitude with which we leave it. I try to apply this wisdom to each of my activities. Of course, it’s only possible for me to do this when I’m willing to slow right down.

I’ll give you an example

I posted my pine cone painting onto Instagram and was about to scroll through the feed, but noticed that I hadn’t consciously decided that this was what I wanted, so I paused, set a timer for ten minutes and then returned to Instagram. When the timer went off I stopped it. My thumb hovered over the feed for a moment while I thought. I knew I wanted to keep reading, but I also knew that I’d decided ten minutes was more than enough time, and so I stopped.

Or another example

At the end of the meditation track I play, the background soft noise continues some time after the meditation itself has ended. Normally I stop it playing and just get on with my day, but today I paid attention to my need to get up and be busy. I decided to wait until the very end and only stand up once I knew exactly what it was I was going to do.

But of course this is not easy

Rescue days might contain fewer tasks, but they are anything but easy. It is much easier to be busy. It’s easier to keep pushing yourself because that’s the muscle that you’ve spent your life strengthening. If you’re anything like me ‘more’ feels more natural than ‘less’.

But to slow down and catch myself, to not march but amble and take note, to set myself up for Monday morning and from there the rest of the week, this all means that I won’t just survive the week ahead but that I have the opportunity to enjoy it.

Living here in Spain the pace of life is slower

You can’t brutishly charge around expecting to have what you want when the rest of the town is busy having their extended lunch break. And you can’t expect that dinner is going to be an option at the moment you feel hungry. You have to learn to slow down to the pace of life around you. And you always have to be prepared for when, maybe, things don’t go your way.

So yes, I did less with my Sunday than I could have

I focused on what matters to my mental health most, and I made sure that I was aware of how I start and end each activity. I want to be the one choosing how I live rather than allowing myself to be led by compulsive desires.

And now I am prepared for Monday morning.

Do you actively change your behaviour to recover from a bad day? Or do you keep pushing on?

Written a few weeks back.