Learning to be compassionate to myself

I am learning to let myself do what I want to do. It seems so strange as I have often thought this was what I was doing. I am an independent woman and am not answerable to anyone…or am I? Well, I wasn’t. I was making myself answerable to family, friends, society, charities, students, bosses, colleagues and anyone else I came into contact with.

Was an action acceptable or expected? Was it for others? Did it help someone else? I felt guilt for doing what I wanted to do. Taking time for me was a luxury I could not afford or justify. I was answerable to everyone elses needs first and all my energy went on this.

Now I can actually say I take time for me to do what I need. My pace of life seems slower and maybe even boring to some. However, I remind myself it isn’t, it is the peace and relaxation that I have needed for a long time. I feel little to no guilt for taking this time for me too. The guilt has not disappeared but it is diminishing.

Don’t get me wrong, if a friend or family member needs me I am there in a flash. I am great in an emergency. However, it is on my terms and only with people who appreciate me rather than expect it. People who I know would be there if I needed them too.

This weekend I binged watched tv, read a book, ran a few errands and chilled out. I did very little but it was great. It was what I needed. I was tired from work and needed to process some things. So, I let myself do what I needed and wanted to do.

I am looking after myself and my home more. I have the energy to tidy and clean without feeling it is just too much. I can take a bath without it feeling like I am wasting time by enjoying it.

bath bathroom bathtub indoors
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I can do all this without feeling lazy or selfish. My fear of being lazy or selfish has plagued me for years. Anytime I stopped for longer than a few hours that niggling feeling I was becoming lazy would slip into my mind. If I wasn’t doing something for someone else I was selfish. These thoughts are no longer there. Self-care is not being lazy or selfish. It is being compassionate to myself.

This is a huge leap forward for me. To some these things might seem trivial but accepting these new thoughts, habits and beliefs are hard work. I have lived 33 years a different way but this older dog is learning new tricks.

This does not mean I have cracked it and am cured of all my negative thoughts, but it is a step, maybe even a leap. So this blog is to remind myself of what I can do and to bring myself back to this place. I want to make positive thoughts, self-care and compassion my habits in my life in this mental world.

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Just keep breathing

Breathing is something we just do. Our brains communicate with our lungs and it just happens. It is so essential we do not have to think about it. Yet when our brains are stressed they can lose some control of how to regulate our breathing.

As a teacher my most important advice to my students preparing for exams is to breathe. When the invigilator says “Start” before you open that exam paper take two deep breaths. Steady those nerves, give your brain oxygen and calm the mind. A stressed brain is not going to remember as much as a calm one.

Thinking about how you are breathing is important, it allows us to take back control of our breathing from our brains. We can decide how our breathing will go.

I have found this increasingly key as I suffer from anxiety and depression. Overwhelming emotions can be accepted and moved on from with a few deep breaths. I feel during meditation the world seems to slow down around me, alongside my deepening breathing. I can find a calm within the storm of my emotions and stresses.

I am not saying breathing solves everything, far from it. But from someone who is a control freak, it can bring me a sense of control over something when the rest of the world seems uncontrollable. When my own emotions seem out of control taking back my breathing seems to help.

Breathing can be done anywhere, I often take a couple of deep breaths when teaching a challenging class, or when I am driving, or when my puppy will just not lay down and sleep. You do not need an app or advice on how to do it, you already know. I do use Calm to help guide my meditation but for a quick ‘gain some control breath’, it is all me.

I admit I do not do the ‘in through your nose and out through your mouth’. I just cannot seem to ever get it right and I do not like to breathe through my mouth, too noisy. However, I do not think it diminishes my own breathing practice.

Scientifically a deep breath can boost the oxygen we are being supplied and therefore has a physical heathy benefit. Yet, psychologically I think the impact is even greater.

So just breathe, give your brain time to process life in this mental world.

A Woodland Walk

I walk through the woodland, an excited puppy running around my feet. Headphones placed in my ears, a voice tells me to slowly breathe in and out. Each muddy step feels like a journey in a novel, a wander through an enchanted forest. I feel my heart beats growing faster, so I focus on the breeze as it swirls through the leaves above me and across my face.

The raindrops feel refreshing as they fall around me. I watch as they flow down the leaves to the woodland floor. Each droplet has a journey, a destiny as it tells a story washing fears away. I look at the many greens and browns that surround me. Degrading autumn leaves fallen are beneath my feet, the puppies paws disappear into the squelching mulch.

The ground goes up and down as I follow the path into the depths of woodland. My mind turns inside and I feel the pain within. In this woodland I am alone in its peace and the loneliness closes in. I can feel each scar and wound left on my heart. Damaged over and over by the loves and losses of my life.

environment fallen trees forest graffiti
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Thirty-three years of heartache; wounds, scratches, bruises and stabs. Betrayals, insults and losses have taken their toll. My heart feels battered like it has had a long career as a boxer. Round and round of fists until hearing the bell ding. Family, friend and lovers leaving their marks. Stabs, although no longer a seeping wound they have left deep scars.

Sometimes I feel these scars will never heal completely. Memories cannot be erased and self confidence is hard to regain. The wall of protection around my heart is concreted in place, yet lately I see the cracks appearing. I feel my heart calling from it’s locked box, yearning to be free. Screaming out for another love to nurture it like it has never really known.

I enjoy my solitude. I like to take my dog walks bathing in nature. It is like I crave my space and time with me. However, I also wish for someone to share this life with me. Supporting each other. To share a cup of tea. Friends are amazing but a love is something transcendent. A love not to cure-all, but to provide additional forces in the fight for our lives in this mental world.

man and woman having a tea conversation
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My Floatation Experience: relaxed, calm but bruised

Today I tried a flotation tank. I was led to a room with a large oval pod that reminded me of something out of a science fiction novel. An escape capsule from a spaceship under attack. As the lid lifted I smelt the murky salted water I saw inside.

flight sky earth space
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Around the room there was a shower, towels, ear plugs and a hairdryer. It was not cold or hot. Clean and well equipped with anything I needed to prepare and to get ready for the world afterwards.

A friend had treated me to this experience and I was nervous. Mostly worried I would feel claustrophobic as the lid closed above me. She went first, sensing my nerves. I had an amazing back and neck massage, while I waited for her verdict.

She had survived and said it was nice. A bit weird, she admitted she got a bit bored. She reassured me, she still thought I would really like it. She reminded me how I love a bath. She smiled encouragingly, as I was led to the floatation room.

Inside, I changed into my bathing costume and showered to wash off the oils from the massage. I pushed the button and the lid automatically lifted in front of me. I stepped into the tank, neck cushion in my hand. The noises were muffled by the complementary ear plugs I had stuffed into my ears.

Sitting down I slid my feet forward and laid back. As the water was highly salted my body floated with ease. I took a deep breath and pressed the close button. No turning back now, off to space.

abstract art black background blur
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It was a little claustrophobic at first. I left the little red light, that was glowing at my feet, on and reminded myself I could get out anytime. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine I was in the pool on holiday in Antigua. A happy place for me, hot and sunny.

The music started and my hour began…I tried to push thoughts away and meditate. Focusing on my breathing, I pictured the blue of the sky, listened for the sounds of waves and felt the warmth of the sunshine. I think the smell of salty water helped my imagination.

I thought about a lot of the things, at first, things I am worried about at the moment. I actively had to accept the thought and push it away. Eventually my mind went quiet and, as I focused on my breath, I relaxed.

My limbs felt weighted and I needed to move them occasionally to check they still worked. I thought of each limb slowly relaxing, the water taking my weight with ease. I could have been anywhere; my mind imagined drifting over the middle of a lake, lost in the waves of the ocean, or dreaming in that infinity pool at the top of a Sri Lankan hotel, I once stayed in.

couple under hut beside sea and infinity pool
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It was relaxing and I enjoyed it. There was a significant reduction of bombardment on my senses, it helped my body to disassociate from the world. This is called Restricted Environmental Simulation Therapy. Some people describe feeling as if in a trance. Emptying your mind is meant to improve focus and mood. Some even experience hallucinations and out-of-body experiences.

Although new to me, floatation tanks date back to the 1950’s. They have been linked to helping with several medical issues; from stress, PTSD, anxiety, to Fibromyalgia, which I suffer with. There is no current science to back up these claims, and lots of people’s accounts come down on both sides. Like most things, it is probably down to the individuals experience and response.

I do feel better from it, I feel relaxed and calmer than I did before. I would recommend it for a relaxation experience. We bought our vouchers from the lovely website Groupon and paid the discounted price of £28. Prices seem to vary, similar to booking a massage.

I do think my mind got to a place of meditation, or even trance nearer the end of the session. Maybe if I did it again my mind would learn to focus quicker. I did feel my mind was much clearer than it was during my massage, a time I used to contemplate the world and put it all to rights in my mind.

My body also feels, on the most part, in less pain than before. I say mostly but that is not down to the floatation. This is because I did the ridiculous thing of slipping as I stepped into the shower, after my tank experience. I ended up on the floor with the shower step hitting the back of my legs as I fell. I think the oils from my massage came back to bite me, literally on my arse. Left a little bruised, a little embarrassed but glad no one was there to witness it.

Here is my relaxed, calm but bruised life in this mental (and sometimes slippery) world.

Worrying about Worrying

It seems like an oxymoron to say “I am worrying about worrying people”. I know the people who care about me will worry about me. I know it is normal for them to worry about me, as they love me. I would and do worry about them. But that does not mean I do not try to mitigate the amount of worry they have about me.

I keep the deep and dark thoughts to myself. When struggling with my mental health or unwell physically, I hide away from the world. Look after myself, in my world. Usually under my duvet with my puppy keeping me company (he is currently next to me, dreaming).

My Sleeping Puppy
Toby asleep – always a cutie

Does everyone else feel this way? I know I find it hard to ask for help. I am used to being the strong independent type. I am used to relying on just me. Being single and not always having a supportive family has left me posing as super woman. I have great friends, the absolute best, but in the past friends have left. So, it is hard to say with 100% confidence that they would to stay through the worst of a person.

If I was to say “I need help”, I would feel I am admitting that I am not the strong independent woman everyone thought. I am weak and helpless. I know it is not as black and white as this, logically I do. But then in these recent times, I actually feel weak and helpless. So maybe, I am not the strong independant woman I thought I was and want to be.

I also feel that when I am asking people for support, I am asking people to care about me. This brings me back into the ‘I am not worthy of love’ cyclone of thoughts. Leading to my belief that I am not worthy of the support and so I shouldn’t be asking in the first place.

tornado on body of water during golden hour
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How can I feel worthy of someones worry? What is even on the criteria for that?

It gets even harder when I know a friend is also going through a hard time. Adding to someone else’s burden is even more difficult. I feel I should be the support beam, not the earthquake that could make it all collapse. My own problems should be pushed down the priority and others needs are to be put ahead of my own.

These are the circling thoughts in my mind. No answer, no solution just problems. Here are my thoughts, just trying to find the logic within the chaos of my life in this mental world.

The Best of Intentions

Should we assume in life that everyone has the best intentions. Are we all just trying to do our best?

You can do everything possible to predict the many outcomes but you can have an unknown wider impact. Each action is like a stone dropping into water, sending ripples to places you couldn’t even see. People can be hurt or negatively affected in ways we cannot see.

I often tell my students you have to be aware of the possible outcomes of your actions and take responsibility for them. They throw some-thing and it unintentionally hurts someone then you are responsible for that outcome. If you are play fighting and someone gets hurt you are responsible. Can you tell I am Assistant Head of Year 8? Puberty has landed and the boys are learning the boundaries of physical behaviours. Taking responsibility for taking the risk of a bad outcome.

But my question actually came from a TV show, Madam Secretary. I missed this show when it came out in 2014 and I am now catching up (binge watching), thanks to Now TV. Recently, deep into season two, war with Russia was adverted but lives were lost in the process. As a history teacher I know my wars, causes, long-term effects, short-term effects, casualty figures and wars causing wars. I ponder the possibilities of IF things could have been different but have to accept what happened as it is the facts.

However, I believe these issues not only can be seen on the world-wide political stage but they play out on a smaller theatre in our lives. The choices we make impact the people around us. Everyday small choices and the big ones. I know my seeking help with my therapist has sent a ripple through my family. I caused this ripple and will have to ride out the waves it makes.

In therapy we have discussed responsibility, blame and forgiveness a lot. All words associated with these ideas. Do I blame any member of my family for my childhood? The impact it still has on me? Do I need to or want to forgive them for the abuses against me?

My therapist says it is not about forgiveness but about compassion. To understand people’s intent and believe they always tried their best in their circumstances. We are living in a web of history, relationships, and family dilemmas. To me a family tree is a web of stories woven together more like a tapestry.

nature forest trees park
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I also believe we are a product of our upbringing; a combination of family, friends, society, culture, religion and many other influences. These determine our choices. I have chosen therapy and am seeing some of the consequences as I have found my voice.

For example, My mum had a really tough upbringing; an alcoholic abusive father and an addicted to gambling mother who was sent to prison for fraud. She always tries to be her best self but is hampered by herself and her past. This resulted in her treating me as her scapegoat, emotionally abusing me through my childhood and adolescents, even my early adult years.

So here is my dilemma: How responsible are we for the unforeseen, if everyone is just trying to do their best? I know my mother never intend to abuse me emotionally, she just couldn’t help it. Should I still expect an apology, a recognition of her effect? My sibing’s bullied me, but they were brought up in a household where that treatment of me was condoned by the adults. They were not taught this was not okay, so can they be held responsible?

I have had to accept that I cannot change the past. I cannot demand anything from anyone. But I do live with the consequences and I have learnt to not accept abuse now. As an adult I can call them out for their behaviour now.

The past is just that, set in stone. It is my perspective I have had to learn to change. To understand every parent does their best, even when they fail spectacularly.

I find this so hard to accept. As a teacher I have cried and had my heart-broken by stories of child abuse I would not repeat. Were these people really doing the best they can? It feels like acceptance of these actions if I agree but it isn’t. Acceptance is still fighting for change but living in the present. It is letting people, who experience these things, know they did not deserve it but accepting it happened. Giving people back their worth and giving them their own strength.

I teach students about all of Hitler’s qualities: the painter, animal lover, vegetarian and lover of his mother. I teach them about his childhood and traumas he experienced as a soldier in WWI. Not because I want to justify any of his actions, far from it. But maybe, in understanding others are a product of their experiences, we can accept that so are we. Then maybe we can learn to forgive and have compassion for ourselves.

Compassion for others actions comes more easily to me. To understand their actions, not to agree with the behaviours or just let them go. To hope, I would have done things differently in their situation and in future situations I face. But to also hope people I have hurt along the way show me the same compassion. Compassion for myself I find harder and I am working on it, with the best intentions, of course.

Written with compassion from my life in this mad world.

 

Toes dipped in or am I deep in the ocean’s waves?

I have been on anti-depressant tablets since late October. Lately I have been feeling blue again. Overcome by moments of overwhelming bleakness that wash over me without warning. It takes my breath away, while making me want to hide from the world under my duvet forever.

I know I find this time of year tough; it is cold, dark, wet, damp and the sun is hiding away. Everyone’s vitamin D drops and some even have SAD. Then you add in family, financial January and school pressures. It is a hard time of year, or is it just me?

I have been trying to use my coping strategies to help. I am meditating (almost) daily, blogging on here and trying to enjoy nature on dog walks at the weekends. I am trying to savour company with my puppy and taking in the mindfulness of a cup of tea. But none of it has been working…

I have ideas to help my students but cannot get up the energy to have any enthusiasm. I am acting ‘happy teacher’ at the front of my classroom. I am finding noises particularly annoying and frustrating. Children’s chatter, adverts on the radio and even my dogs barking at the postman/neighbour/bird. I feel heavy and achy. My feet feel like they are burning.

One big sign for me, is that I am tearful. This might not mean much to many but for me this is huge. I do not cry, well rarely and when I do it is a few tears. I am like Amanda Woods, the Cameron Diaz character in the film The Holiday. Sat trying to make myself cry, making wailing noises in hope for just one tear.

My lack of tears are from being bullied by my family for years. As a child apparently I cried a lot so much I was teased for it. Called a ‘cry-baby’, ‘melon head’ or ‘lemon head’ repeatedly and frequently. I was an emotional child but learnt not to cry, hold in the emotion. Now, I am emotional. I just can’t express it on the outside.

So, how do I know when I am having a bit of a bad patch or if I need help through a higher medication dose? When is self-help not enough? My natural instinct is to sort it out myself, to be independent and not complain. As a child I was given a list of chores whenever I was off sick. I had to look after myself when I was ill. Now I find it hard to rely on others and ask for that help. It makes me feel like a hypochondriac or being seen as someone moaning.

But how do I know when it is more than I can cope with, when to ask for help? How long do I leave it? A week, two, more? When is it ok to moan, groan and complain? When does it become too much to bare alone?

Last time I waited months and waited until I was broken and curled up in a ball. I am trying not to get back there but sometimes I do not know if I am on the brink of the cliff…

 

 

Me, My therapist and I

Today I went to my monthly therapist sessions. After three years I have gone from twice weekly sessions on the couch to monthly. Finding the right therapist was also so important. This one came recommended and I have never looked back. She gets me, like I feel few have. She has my back while challenging my perceptions of myself and the world. I never feel judged or patronised.

As most people, I wanted someone I could get along with. I wanted it to feel friendly but also to get professional advice. Being educated and intelligent I also wanted someone who would see that. My therapist often tells me the theory behind what she says and recommends books I can read to know more. To me education is so key to understanding myself and the world I live in, I am a self labelled bibliophile.

brown and black wooden docor
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Before I even approached therapy I had read and googled a lot of psychology to understand myself, but I got to a point where I could not get any further. I knew my childhood had affected me and was impacting my present. I just did not know how to stop the triggers and deal with them. Luckily a friend who I had confided in told me  she thought that her couples therapist would be a good match for me.

Each session we wrestle with my issues; family, friends, school, and everything in-between. Some sessions I get angry, tearful, sad while others I feel happy and proud of myself. I never quite know which emotion it is going to be, it could even be all of them. One things I do always know is it will help.

I have found my voice in that room. It has helped me really learn who I am, what I believe in, what is important to me. I have learnt to be compassionate to myself and those who are part of my story. It is hard at times, as I re-live and re-count my memories. And I am not done. I am booked in again for a months time.

It is so important to find a therapist who does this for you. The person who will help, guide and support you, in all the ways in which you need. If they don’t then try someone new. Try a  recommendation from someone who knows you.

This can be difficult with budget cuts and insurance policies sometimes in control. I have the ability to go privately and I know that I am lucky for that. Although I do also budget to make sure I can afford this, for me. I have had to convince myself that I am worth this expense just like I am worthy of having my hair cut or having a duvet day.

Today we talked about the ripple effect of having counselling, upon those around you. My family and friends relationships have changed, they have had to adapt. Some have faded or disappeared. I have had to respect others decisions to not want to discuss things to more forward. Leaving doors ajar and hope they will come back when they are ready. I am also trying to accept that some people might never change or really understand.

photo of woman behind door
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So to my therapist, thank you. To those around me I hope we can adjust and change together. If not I will leave the door ajar with hope.

Until next time, this is my life in a mental world.

 

Looking well and living with invisible illnesses

Today I interviewed Jonny Benjamin MBE, for the podcast I co-host (The Mental Health Book Club Podcast). In part of the interview we spoke about people’s perception of mental illness, that he ‘looked well’ so must be better.

This is the problem with an invisible illness, people assume if you do not look sick then you are not sick. I have done it, I think we all have. To see someone get out of a car parked in a disabled bay who ‘looked well’ mentally question if they were ‘really disabled’.

But I have an invisible illness, actually I have several; Fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, depression and anxiety. This means that I may look well. I can still dress, clean my teeth, take a bath and smile when I need to. Not every day, but those days I usually stay at home, where you will not see me. Unless you deliver takeaways, are my lovely postman or an Amazon delivery driver.

Saying that there are the in-between days, days which mean I am up and in life but not feeling great. It could be post migraine symptoms, depressive episode or my anxiety running a muck. Days I go into school (work) and have to smile and teach even when I want to run and hide. Those days I might ‘look well’ and be able to act ‘well’.

I just think we should remember that we do not know what is behind closed doors. We cannot assume people are well and healthy because they smile at us. I know I have got very good at acting well, I can fool even my best friend for quite a while. For when I am ready to share and ask for help.

I even have trouble with bathing; pre-verbal childhood trauma which has led to an illogical fear of water. But I make myself keep clean and bath as society expects. Also because no one wants to be the person who smells.

My parents wash occasionally and brush their teeth even less frequently. I have had to ask my mum to brush her teeth before we go out. So I do have a fear of smelling or having bad breath. So I learnt no matter how I felt I was to look ‘fine’.

My mum is someone who is always feeling worse than you are, ever. I was not really asked how I was and looked after when I was sick. If I was off sick from school I was given a lost of chores to do. Mum also likes to moan about her many illnesses, she is ill. She is living with cancer and also has high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type two diabetes, mobility issues and is morbidly obese. So she does have a lot to complain about, but she has been moaning even before she had all of these.

It was like my illnesses were not real. Therefore, now as a grown up I have had to learn to ask for help and show people how I am really feeling. To no longer just say ‘fine’ all the time. It is ok to say ‘I am not ok’ without seeing a moaner, another mother linked fear of mine. I am more open about days I am not feeling well but doing what I need to do, work.

I think I fear too much sympathy. That look that people give you when they feel so sorry for you. I hate it, it makes me feel ill. I am a strong independent woman. I do not want to look weak, I am a perfectionist, and I am stubborn. But I am also learning that I need to be open to help and support. To be honest to break down stigmas and let people learn about the real world to me and others who also suffer.

So here I am, sick but well in my life in a mental world.