Sunday, 31 October 2010

Maslow's Menu and Diet

Just about every teacher, Mental Health practitioner and many business managers (though frankly not enough) are aware of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow was a psychologist who decided that the way to understand psychology was to study where it was working right, not where it's wrong.

He therefore concentrated on studying people like Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frederick Douglass who were perceived to be in pretty good shape to be able to become as successful and respected as they were in their respected fields. (In modern psychology there is now debate as to whether or not anyone is 'normal' or mentally healthy - I shouldn't laugh, but I do!).

Regardless of how it was arrived at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs has become highly influential in determining how well a person is doing and certainly helps by providing a structure and plan to work toward for any and everyone at any and every point of their life. The simplified version consists of five levels of need.

Maslow_Needs_Hierarchy.jpg (604×363)
  • Level 1: Basic (Physiological) needs (food, shelter, drink, sleep - the essential requirements to facilitate life)
  • Level 2: Safety needs (Security of: body, structure (e.g. law and order), employment, finance, family, morality - things that make us feel safe)
  • Level 3: Social Needs (family, community, friends and partnerships)
  • Level 4: Esteem Needs (confidence, feeling valued and respected, being allowed to need and be needed etc)
  • Level 5: Self Actualisation (creativity, accomplishment, achievements, problem solving etc)
The theory is simple: the more levels you can manage to cover the better your quality of life will be. The idea is to ensure all levels are covered in order to be happy and to achieve and reach our own full potential.

When we are depressed though, we can be reduced to only managing Level 1 at best. So, in order to protect ourselves from slipping that low, the more we can get Level 1 to be an automatic routine the easier it will be to build and recover from depression; the more we can keep hold of the things that make us feel safe, the more we can stay connected to others, the better our chances. The more we can ensure we don't lose sight of our dreams, ambitions and goals (so long as they remain realistic) the more we will be improving things for ourselves. Small steps get you there, trying to run before you can walk is far less likely to.

That's why Mental Health Services have worked so hard in providing so many forms of support through sport, creative and social activities as well as linking up with training courses for work and for independent living and social services to help with finances and housing concerns among many others.

Key to Level 1 is diet and exercise. That doesn't mean a special diet full of weird and wonderful restrictions and limitations, it merely means a sensible balanced diet and regular eating pattern. It also doesn't mean having to take up a sport (but it would help), it means keeping physically active by going for a walk regularly or sit-ups or even turning house-work into an exercise routine.

A Balanced Diet = Carbohydrates (which includes fresh fruit and veg, natural sugars, cereals, bread, fibre etc), Fats (self explanatory really) and Proteins (meat, fish, nuts). Too many of any category will create all manner of nasty health problems as will too little of any.

Research has shown that certain chemicals that whizz around our brains are beneficial to our moods, concentration and motivation. If you think of it as checking a car for oil and water you can help your health by including (in moderation) certain foods to firstly get it into tip top condition and maintain it.

Three really helpful chemicals are:
Dopamine: can help regulate and improve attention and motivation.
Good food sources: chicken, oats and a little dark chocolate (several bars of chocolate a day is never the best of ideas no matter how yummy they may be).

GABA: can help regulate anxiety and muscle tone
Good food sources: Almonds, broccoli and walnuts.

Serotonin: can help regulate mood and limit impulsive behaviour
Good food sources: Turkey and bananas.

Never radically change your diet or exercise habits without first discussing doing so thoroughly with a fully trained medical practitioner. Any medication you are on may effect what you will respond to. Any medical condition may effect what you should eat and what you should avoid. Be safe.

Two other important factors help you to stay healthy - sleep and relaxation. Until my training last week I had always thought that diet and sleep were top priorities, but recent research has revealed that exercise is more important than sleep. This is because if you exercise you naturally become tired more easily and therefore sleep better.

Switching your brain off in relaxation is important and a good idea in preparation for sleeping. Watching TV, doing a jigsaw, scribbling a doodle, yoga or meditation are all good ways to help relax so long as whatever you choose isn't so interesting that it turns into a stimulus. Exercise is also a brilliant way for your body to produce seretonin and a few other good feel chemicals besides.

Few people ever fully reach Level 5 (Self-actualization) regardless of whether they have suffered mental health problems or not. This is because Self Actualization really means reaching our full potential and for that to happen often requires two important factors; opportunity and response e.g. the right job and the right employer, or finding a partner and them saying yes!

Level 3 is about average, but Level 4 I believe is more likely for people who have experienced difficulties including illness because they examine their lives in order to identify what's gone wrong and from there work on how to improve things. It becomes a conscious effort which those who have not faced difficulties rarely enter into.

Where I'm at...
My personal needs are to slow up a bit on blogging for I've been guilty of being a bit of a hypocrite by neglecting some essential mundane routine things. The good thing is I've noticed and know what to do. It is a common habit to slip into when we are worried, anxious or depressed to only focus on what makes us happy. The downside is that when the reality hits it hits harder due to that neglect. We always have to face life's less pleasant aspects.

It's rather like fearing going to the dentist though. In anticipation our fear of the thing we want to avoid becomes a monstrous mountain to overcome. However, when we face it we find it's not half as terrible as we imagined - the less time we spend in worrying and avoidance, the less of an ordeal it becomes. Mountains are merely a series of molehills bunched together. The trick is to kick them away one at a time.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Wisdom and Beliefs

This week I received a chain mail urging me to pass it on or I would miss out on getting some money. I chose to pass it on partly in support of the friend who sent it, but partly because one never knows, or as I put it, I wanted to hedge my bets. I normally don't do that with chain mail as I vehemently disagree with them precisely because they prey on people's vulnerabilities. So why did I this time? It was a bit of fun. I don't really think it will alter my life at all. However, it started me thinking about what people do believe in and why.

One of the things that irritate me about some highly talented and respected scientists including David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins is their dismissals and criticism of religion. It angers me because, for many people all they've got left to keep them going is a faith as that's how hard and lonely life can be for them. I still admire the work of these people but cannot condone their stance to eradicate what for many is their only lifeline.

Moving in cycles
Charles Darwin's book 'The Origin of the Species' introduced the concept of Evolution. It did not negate the existence of God and cannot. One of the quirks of science is that one theory is rubbished in favour of a better one. However, its habit is to return to the original theory from a different angle, which then marries with the new theory, which in turn develops into a new theory.

Newton's theory on Gravity did not fit with Einstein's Theory of Relativity until they did this and Einstein's theory was itself brought into question when people started exploring quantum physics. So who knows, maybe the God of Creation will be the entity responsible for the Big Bang, String Theory, Membrane Universes etc.

Religions evolve too and it is wrong to think that they don't. "If all were of the same religious opinion, there would be no religion. No sooner does a religion start than it breaks into pieces. The process is for the religion to go on dividing until each man has his own religion, until each man has thought out his own thoughts and carved out for himself his own religion." Swami Vivekananda. Within each religion there is variation.

On the radio this week was a programme about Salman Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses' and how it led to books being burnt, rioting, death threats and people being killed. Extremes are, by their nature, dangerous because they are obsessive and inflexible. I know of no religion that hasn't got its extremist version where leaders dictate and shun those who don't follow their edicts.

Yet scriptures from all religions are written by mere mortals... and what do we know about mortals? They have been known to corrupt and distort things for their own benefit and to sell the ideas they are passionate about, among other things. Humans are imperfect, so therefore any interpretation of God is likely to be inadequate in some way.

What is uncanny though is the fact that all human communities from the dawn of time have come up with the concept of God (or Gods), and they all have evolved to produce a code of ethics which in turn has formed the foundation stones for the myriad of nations and societies that we have today. The interpretation varies on both, but there is a core of moral values that are shared by all societies.

In counselling it was pointed out to me that people believe what they want to suit their own purpose. In other words, we buy into religions and spiritual ideologies that speak to us, that help explain things, comfort us or help us to walk a moral path that ties in with what we already want to feel. Science itself can be seen as a form of religion as it too has its own belief structure based on accepted knowledge just as religion does. Yet as I've already highlighted even science is not infallible and is constantly adapting to new theories.

We also buy into beliefs (including gossip) about others to suit our own needs and wants. We end up laughing at someone because we want to feel a common bond with others. It doesn't mean it's based on fact, and rarely is when it comes to gossip. We criticise others for the same faults we have ourselves if we would but look.

Devout atheists are devout on the grounds that Evolution doesn't explain the God of Ethics and Morals. For myself, I'll continue to hedge my bets. Thank you Tom Stoppard for highlighting this point in your play 'Jumpers' all those years ago. This is an extract where a philosopher is trying to prepare a talk about the subject of God.

"Is God? And then again, I sometimes wonder if the question ought not be, 'Are God?' Because it is to account for two quite unconnected mysteries that the human mind looks beyond humanity and it is two of him that philosophy obligingly provides. There is, first, the God of Creation to account for existence, and second, the God of Goodness to account for moral values." Tom Stoppard.

Final thoughts
Personally I can't see why God cannot be an energy force, for how could He/She/It/They be 'omnipresent' and 'almighty' otherwise? If that were so, God would suddenly tie in with science. That personal interpretation then opens my mind to all sorts of other possibilities so that Reiki, Acupuncture, Feng Shui, Homeopathy and Astrology might have something right about them, even if I cannot understand what. Most of those belief structures can be traced back further than modern science or current mainstream religions. Scientists find it difficult to define/prove what green is as it's all down to perception.

Religion and belief is always a good thing if it brings comfort and encourages kindness, compassion and consideration and is invariably harmful whenever and wherever it tries to bully, dictate and be unforgiving. Rather like democracy, if it is imposed it becomes tyranny.

As Dave Allen always used to say at the end of his comedy sketch shows "May your God go with you."

Monday, 25 October 2010

Coins and chairs - what to decide

Does this sound familiar I wonder... Tossing and turning at night as to what's the best thing to do? Here's a couple of techniques I came across that have really helped.

For minor choices e.g. whether to go out or stay in etc then flip a coin. Heads can be go out. Tails, staying in. If you secretly want it to fall one way or the other you will be wishing it falls that way. If it really doesn't matter either way, follow how it falls. And if you're not completely happy with the result it comes up with flip it a few times until you are.

For major decisions e.g. moving home try using two chairs. A counsellor taught me this one when I was dithering about whether or not to move. On the one hand I loved where I lived. It was in the country, open fields with sheep bleating and distant church bells and a lovely long (but narrow) garden, nice neighbours, a nice terraced house with open fireplace and lots of wonderful memories.

On the other hand it had become associated with death as that's where I grieved over losing my father and two dear friends and two dear neighbours. It was isolated and a cold house as it had no gas central heating. It was out of the way for most of my friends to pop in and visit. It was like retirement cottages since the only young family had moved out.

So following the instructions I set two chairs out. I then wrote down all the pros and cons of staying and then did the same for a new place to live. I paused to have a cup of tea before finally sitting in the first chair - staying put. Once you sit in a chair you imagine that's the decision you've made. No going back, no swapping. As I sat there with all my memories and thoughts both good and bad I began to cry. I thought about all the things I would miss if a left and how much I loved the place, but I was also thinking about all the problems I had there too. I left the chair and had a long break.

Eventually I returned and this time sat in the other chair - the one for moving house. And I did the same exercise, imagining all the positives and negatives of finding a new place, new neighbours (would they be sociable and supportive like the ones I had or not - they might be better or they might be worse). I also thought about the upheaval and the stress that can cause and of Poppy my cat and whether she'd be ok with a new place.

My counsellor had warned me that I might have to repeat this exercise several times before finally coming to a decision. The trick is to really believe that the decision has been made once you sit in each chair. When I sat in the staying chair, there was no going back; when I sat in the moving chair I had moved.

I chose to move as more than anything I needed new life around me. My tears (and there were many) were of letting go. Yes I miss that house even to this day as it was very special to me but I still feel I made the right decision for what I most needed. I moved to a small town which has lots of interesting shops and restaurants and I am surrounded by young couples and families. Some of them became good friends and others not so much but civil enough. Moving enabled me to clear debts so I could treat myself a little and start living again.

In this example I got the choices down to two, if possible try to do the same as it can make it easier. (I didn't add more chairs for all the possibilities of where I could be moving to which kept it simple). However, sometimes that's exactly what you need to do. e.g. getting a row of chairs out for all the houses I was interested in and trying each of them out.

It was one of the most difficult decisions I've ever made, but this exercise helped me to explore all my thoughts and feelings so that I became sure it was the right one. I hope you find this exercise helps you as much as it did me for those emotionally difficult situations.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Believing I was Bipolar

Back in 1998 I quite rightly was sectioned after being isolated for two years following the death of my father. Friends at that time didn't visit, send cards, phone or email unless I quite frankly hounded them and eventually I gave up on doing even that.

I say, rightly sectioned because (as mentioned in an earlier posting) I was imagining my house was under surveillance with tiny microphones and cameras. Helicopters flying overhead, and people driving past with earpieces to their mobile phones were all spying on me or so I came to believe. Such was the effect of lack of company, lack of a job, lack of food and sleep. I went down three dress sizes.

I'm about to make this one exception to my rule of not divulging anyone else's personal history, but for a good reason. I used my sitting in two chairs exercise to decide whether or not to do so (which will follow shortly). The reason is that my history of mental illness was profoundly effected by that of my mothers. The ripple effect of living with someone with any form or long-term illness (mental or physical) is profound. Her condition has had an impact on every member of my family in one way or another.

In order to prevent others being affected or becoming as severely ill as she was I have chosen to share my own experiences and something of hers. She would feel betrayed if she was still living I know. It's been a family secret and a taboo to mention it outside the family, but I believe it's that very taboo that makes matters worse. We can't resolve or come to terms with difficulties if we don't face up to them.

Like many who have lost a loved one, I still talk to her and in my mind, and in my mind, she is completely well now and understands and is backing me up on this. My siblings and father would agree that I was the closest member of the family to her and her primary concern throughout her life was to put a stop to all the suffering and cruelty.

She had been a nurse in Northern Ireland in her early life, patching up bomb victims from both sides. It's not the whole reason why I believe she became ill by any means, but as it's enough of a reason for anyone to become ill. I will leave it at that.

As the medical team were aware of her illness they made an assumption, that I was ill in a similar way. Over the weeks and months of my treatment I was diagnosed as bipolar, schizoid affected disorder, and more recently 'mixed', meaning I had learnt my behaviour patterns from my Mum's illness. But she wasn't the only person I learned from, I learned from all members of my family and from everyone outside of it too.

I saw people throwing tantrums and getting their way at work by being angry. I saw how people staying quiet were often overlooked and railroaded over. I saw how being supportive of others won respect and love too. I saw how playing the victim and seeking sympathy could win support. I tried everything I saw in attempts to find meaningful relationships in my life. Though at the time I was unconscious of my mimicry.

There was only one problem with all this - none of them were quite me, or at least the whole me. It's taken me many years of exploration, work and practice to find out who I am and take full ownership of my own responses.

I now no longer want sympathy at all. Years ago I really thought I did and that I deserved it. Now what I want is acknowledgement for my experiences which is very different. I've wanted respect for having largely overcome them too, but have found that if I don't seek it the more I receive it.

My history highlights the age old debate between nature and nurture, between what is genetic and what is learnt from the situations and circumstances we find ourselves in. In my counselling I've learned that the percentage of what is nature (genetic), and what is nurture (learnt), varies for each individual and that both can change with a lot of practice and by having a bit of luck in who you mix with.

My genetics are a mix of both my parents, only one of which was mentally ill so it was in many ways very wrong of the medical team to assume I was a repeat of my mother. Aside from anything else none of us what to feel identical in every way to anyone else. We all want to be regarded as individuals in our own right and appreciated accordingly.

However, I am not angry with my medical team because despite the labels (which never to justice to the reality of living with any form or illness or disability 24/7), I find I can do nothing but thank them for guiding me back to health; for being the catalysts in helping me find the true me; for giving me the courage to find my voice and use it.

Nor do I regret all the work I had to do to manage what they thought to be a bipolar condition, for that process of setting limits of my thoughts and moods has given me better control, improved the quality of my life immeasurably and made me a happier person. Even the medication I was put on gave me insights that helped.

Most of all I found the talking therapies to have been the greatest source of help, but am conscious that they might not have been as effective had I not also been on medication. Talking therapies only really work when we are receptive to them and enter into them with full commitment and honesty and that means sharing what we don't ever like to admit about ourselves and what is painful.

Recently I came across an article about Ruby Wax in which she feels Stephen Fry is irresponsible for not taking any medication for his bipolar condition. Ruby is also bipolar and she opted for medication. I will never dictate to anyone what they should do about their health (mental or otherwise) because I believe you have a right to decide for yourself what is best for you. All I would do is suggest and recommend. I am not responsible for your life, you are.

So here's my recommendation - speak out for what you need and keep people updated. And my personal opinion (you are at liberty to vehemently disagree) is that I am open to the idea that talking therapies alone being all a person may need to prevent becoming so ill they need to be sectioned.

However, I see no difference to a person needing medication when sectioned to a person needing medication in an Accident and Emergency department to save their lives when brought in from a car accident. The point is, while we are out of hospital we should use our ability to seek forms of help that work for us and that is different for everyone.

I take aspirins for headaches and antidepressants if I'm depressed. What's the difference? Diabetics have to take insulin to ensure that they are healthy, others takes mood stabilisers to secure their health. It's not their fault their bodies don't naturally produce enough of what is needed. Thankfully there are drugs these days that can help if required. As I never want to be as ill again I doubt very much I will ever come off medication entirely. You have the power to choose, do so wisely.

One last point - as a consequence of the work done following being sectioned I have never been sectioned since - not even when my closest family member (my Mum) died. It didn't prevent another deep depressive episode which ‘seemed’ as bad at the time but looking back now I can see that being sectioned had taught me how to survive and cope far better.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Ten excuses to be silly!

Oh heck, now I have to be silly as promised from my last blog. Talk about pressure! Pressure can be a good thing though as it can drive us forward and challenge us. Stress happens when there's an excess of pressure so the answer to that is simplify or cut down on the number of things we set ourselves to do or commit to doing for others.

Right then... some silly games, stuff and nonsense.

1. In your mind create two animals. One with all your favourite qualities in looks, colour, things it can do (give it special powers if you like) and personality traits. Create the second out of all the things you dislike. Given them names (what are they and what they're called e.g. a cheeteagle called Burt or a blue kangafish called Stan anything you like) and give them a story.

2. Sit in front a mirror and twist your face to create as many funny expressions as you can.

3. Make a list of all the things that make you laugh and try and write a joke or funny story or poem. It's not easy, but remembering things that made you laugh can help as a starting point.

Eddie Izzard (comedian) came up with a silly story about cats. When you hear a cat purring behind the sofa it's actually drilling for something with goggles on and a big drill in its front paws. Well, it made me laugh and set my imagination going as to what it might be drilling for. So I came up with this...

Cats drill tunnels so that when they have conned you into thinking they stay sleeping on your bed all night they meet up to play cards, smoke and drink and confer on what mischief they can cause us humans the next day. They drag important items from our homes to drive us frantic looking for them and smile innocently and sweetly at us when we ask them where they are. They decide upon who they are going to pretend to fight with the next day and write reviews on each other's performance awarding prizes for the best efforts. Each year they have an annual award ceremony (like the Oscars) for best wind-up, best nuisance, best misdirection, best acting, best bee-biffer etc. The trophies are in the shape of fish covered in meaty jelly which they lick to bits. And so on...

Or how about imagining what else you could go into an office for beside asking for an argument from the Monty Python team... A moan? A queue? A sulk? What else?

Or... what else might be an arrestable offence besides walking down the street in a loud shirt (Not The Nine O'Clock News).

Or... if the term for an electrician who gets fired from their job is delighted, what other ones can you can come up with, de-composed for a musician, de-posed for a fashion model? (Dave Allen)

4. Start a fictionary dictionary of new words to describe things or new verbs (action words) e.g. if you turn rampant into a verb we get people going out rampanting. Write a definition so you won't forget what was in your mind when you look back and finally give an example of the new word's use.

Rampant (verb): The act of being flirtatious that goes beyond mere flirting but stops short of full blown seduction; usually done to help alleviate feeling randy. e.g. "I'm off our now for a spot of rampanting!"

I don't advise you do this for real in case you get arrested or sectioned!

5. Imagine doing something in Topsy Turvy Land like laying a lawn by digging a tunnel under the ground and pushing each blade up out of the ground from underneath and painting each one a different colour.

6. How about trying picking an emotion (sad, happy, angry, shy) and trying to make it larger than life or as small as you can by experimenting in front of a mirror with facial expressions and body language.

7. Try making a mask. It can be a half face, full face, elaborately decorated with tassels, glitter and paint or a really simple expression.

8. Can't get away for a holiday? Design your own - invent the island of your dreams. Design and draw your dream house. Imagination lets you travel anywhere and no one can ever know where you get to or what you get up to!

9. Invent a new language by trying funny sounds out. Warning - this can become difficult to come out of once you get the hang of it, so also be an interviewer of the strange person/creature who is speaking the language. Remember to use noises that indicate if you're asking a question, happy, confused etc?

10. Invent a new game based on one you've played and enjoyed - what were the favourite bits and what else would you included? This could be a board game like Ludo, Chess or Monopoly or a physical game like Twister, Rounders, or Badminton. Remember to be sure of the rules and don't forget to get a guinea pig to try it out with... not a real one, although...! Can you invent a game to play with an animal which has rules it can follow too? Dogs (and some cats) can be pretty good goalkeepers.

And the point of all this? Well mainly it's to have fun, to recognise we are still capable of being children. Some people missed out on childhood games so it's good to catch up. We all have the child inside us. Lastly it helps us to remember what is ridiculous and what isn't so it can act as a preventative toward getting psychotic as well as a stress release valve.

Being silly can help put things back in perspective. Finding the funny side of burning the hole in a favourite shirt when ironing might be hard at the time, but you should be able to manage it at some point afterwards... what could you turn the hole into? Can you persuade people to believe it's the latest fashion? If slashed jeans can be, then why not burnt shirts? It's common for people to laugh at uncomfortable situations as a means of coping and looking at serious issues. How many sit-coms can you think of which have funny stories about funerals or relationship problems? Humour is an essential part of being healthy and helps keep us in balance and recover from bad experiences.

So have fun just being silly. I think it's important to practice regularly. I'm sure there are lots of other ideas (and better ones) than these that you can come up with if you try.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

A Couple of Poems

Following on from my last posting I picked out this ditty from my jottings which I think perfectly encapsulates how, as we evolve, we remember and look on things differently.


The little quirks once so attractive
have become your worst qualities;
Their repetition nauseates.
Was it you or I to change?
Was it then, or is it now, that I am so perceptive?

The moral of this tale is to always value the good things for the time they relate to. Many a bitter rift develops because people forget that. Far better to acknowledge that relationships always move on and sometimes people grow apart because have journeyed in different directions in their individual development.

Why rubbish the fact that at the start there was a connection that was mutual and that it fulfilled a need of that time. Sure it's sad when it doesn't work out long term, but it still served a purpose and answered a need. That is something that I think should always be valued and regarded as precious and irreplaceable.

My second choice from my archives came to me in one of those rare blissful moments of just absorbing nature's beauty. To date it is my personal favourite as I've never before or since quite managed to pen the sense of spirituality that contemplative mood led me too.

Light Sound

I see a light like a spring morn dawning;
Soothing sounds, I hear songs calling –
Compelling, rising throngs warming.

I see a light like a summer’s soft dew;
Silent sounds, I hear still seas –
Sizzling radiance, sharp hue breeze.

I see a light like an autumnal colour;
Stormed sounds, I hear burst thunder –
Spouting, sweeping cloud pallor under.

I see a light like a winter’s spun frost;
Ice sounds, I hear slowing pace –
Muffled sheets of blanket tossed lace.

I see a light and hear sounding –
My heart shifts to soul pounding.

Please note a few additions to this site. The list of links to sources of help is growing as is the film and book list with some fun choices which have been stalwarts of mine in my down days. Then there's Stats Facts, all of which came from training session with MIND I went on yesterday, and finally my personal favourites among the great and good illustrious crazies who, despite their own battles with illness managed success in their own professions. There more nutty celebs out there though if you don't happen to like my favs.

Next time...
I'll either toy with Maslow or (which is more likely), I feel like a bit of fun. I was told once that everything in nature has an equal and opposite, hence I feel a need for some silliness after all the serious stuff now.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Memories are not always what they seem

In the last few days I've come into contact again with people I haven't heard from in decades. What I find fascinating is the thought of what they might make of me now. The person I was is not who I am now by any means, yet there remains a core at the heart of me that has never changed. To me all that's happened is I've come out of my shell; found my own meaning to my life and become aware of the things that are meaningful to me.

This isn't a process that happened overnight. It has been an evolutionary development, shaped by many acquaintances, many encounters along the way. Some have been happy events, lucky breaks and chance meetings that have helped me find my way; but equally even the unhappy times, the rejections and downright nasties have helped to form and define who I am today.

My brother once commented "how would it be if we chose only to remember the bad things about a person" when he was confronted with the news that someone was thinking ill of someone he cared for. Wise words. It's all too easy to forget all the good things about someone because they seemingly do or say something surprising; seemingly out of the blue that doesn't fit with what we're used to.

I believe we will never know a person in entirety so they will do things that won't always 'fit' with what we think we understand about them. Does that mean we didn't know or understand them at all? Of course not, we've merely hit a new facet of their character; and that new facet is a mark of trust for them to share it with us no matter how lovely or unpleasant it is.

In bereavement counselling I encountered memories of some unpleasant events I had as a child. But as a child they didn't occur to me as being unpleasant, because as a child I was none the wiser. Only as an adult did I realise I had been mistreated. As it didn't trouble my conscious mind then I decided it would be silly to become upset about it as an adult. The pain was in the past and in the past it hadn't really registered in my consciousness. All too often when we recollect we impose our current values, emotions and thoughts on those memories which falsifies the true account of the event.

The people involved back then hadn't woken up one day and decided to make my life awful. Their thoughts were elsewhere, troubled by other things which shoved other people's needs aside. They didn't set out to be harmful or malicious, they were preoccupied in their own world. That's important to identify.

I realise, while writing this that it is of no comfort to those who were/are badly and/or regularly abused. All I can suggest and urge you to do to is to seek support from the many agencies available to improve your situation. It is unbelieveably hard to make that decision. But is has been done by those even more terrified than you. It takes phenomenal courage to make that first step, but you're worth it and you're not alone. Many have done it before you to break the chain of abuse to leave it far behind them, and they have gone on to live much happier lives. See the links on the right hand side for sources of help.

Memories can all too easily be magnified out of proportion and distorted. People in abusive situations are good at forever hoping that good times will return or that the promise of "sorry, I'll never do it again" will be kept. We can yearn for the good times to return just as much as we can dwell on the bad and by doing either we lose sight of the here and now.

However, once clear of the traumatic events, over time they do become a blur whereby not every millisecond is remembered unless we make the effort to keep reliving them. Then the trick is to distract yourself from them with something pleasant whenever you can. e.g. I can't remember in much detail the head-on car crash I was once in, nor much of being sectioned, nor the boyfriend that hit me, nor the days of sobbing my heart out at the loss of each of my parents. Part of the reason is because I am clear of those events and chosen to move on from them instead of reliving them daily.

To counter the onset of depression I've learned to count the good things instead of the bad. They maybe little pleasures but they all matter - the scent of flowers, dappled sunshine or a cleansing wet and windy day. The cosy feeling of getting warm when it's been cold; an unexpected smile from a complete stranger; the sound of some unfamiliar music that I instantly fall in love with; things that make me laugh, or the memory of finding a book that has since turned into one of my treasured possessions; not forgetting the quiet still moments when the hubbub of the world leaves me in peace.

From that point I find I can work toward collecting more pleasures everywhere I go and in everything I do. These are unique to each and every person. So here's another exercise for you...

Count up your treasured memories and then set yourself the task of collecting more.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Drains, Puddles and Fountains

A friend of mine once described people as drains, puddles and fountains or to put it another way, those who sap your energy, those who neither sap nor energize you and those who inspire and motivate.

These are the ones who are only focused on themselves, they may speak of caring for others but it's never backed up by action. They are the "woe is me, I'm a victim" merchants. They are the needy, the ones who take up your time and energy.

These are the ones who loiter in the mid-ground, never committing to anything by way of support, nor turning you away. They are not needy, but somehow not engaged either; ambling, ticking over. Never a burden but never a rock to lean upon either.

These are the ones who strive to inspire, motivate. They are enthusiastic, supportive and positive in all they do.

The question is, which are you?

When I asked that of myself I realised I am all three for two reasons. The first is that to some people I am seen as a perpetual burden, to others a non-descript (people have no strong feelings one way or another about me) and to a few I appear a source of inspiration.

The second reason I am all three is because I am human. There are times when I am in need of comfort and support; times when I am ticking along and times when I have been supportive, been strong enough and able (and allowed) to motivate and inspire.

Unfortunately it is all too easy to take on board negatives and in my experience, few are good at dwelling upon our positives. If we spent as much time analysing our successes, acknowledging our good points and recognising our strengths as we did picking over our mistakes, berating ourselves for our imperfections and focussing on our weaknesses, wouldn't that provide a more balanced view of who we really are?

I've been toying with a theory lately that we need our weaknesses to balance out our strengths for how else can we hope to develop and learn without them? How boring life would be if we knew the answer to everything already and how irritating we'd be to others if we never made mistakes or were perpetually enthusiastic about absolutely everything.

Thinking about it, I've never met anyone who is just a drain; only a puddle or totally a fountain. All slip into the each category somewhere at sometime. The closer we get or are to others the more we see of it.

It can be a great burden to a fountain to have everyone turning to them, so that they can easily need to switch to becoming a drain. Equally a drain, because they have knowledge of being in need of support, can easily turn into a fountain of support for others. The inbetween puddles are often those who are resting from being fountains or on the mend from being a drain.

So, in my mind, to be healthy we need to acknowledge and accept that we (and others) are all three.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Beautiful Minds

'A Beautiful Mind' to date has got to be my favourite film about anyone suffering from Mental Illness, but not because it reminds me I'm not alone in having suffered psychosis, but because it demonstrates how even a permanent and difficult medical condition can be accepted, lived with and controlled.

Like many of us with mental health problems it illustrates first our denial that it's happened to us, through resistance to acceptance and treatment. Unlike so many other films on mental illness which play to the salaciousness of mainstream tastes (sensationalism and horror) concerning such conditions, it goes beyond the problem and firmly states there is still valuable and worthwhile life beyond it.

Not just surviving, but enjoying living and embracing it to the full including loving relationships and achievement in work. To me, its message is as much about telling the world that the mentally ill shouldn't be written off as is shown in John Nash's personal story. And what a story...

John Nash is a mathematician, not an artist cutting off his ear; not a writer, sculptor, composer or musician. That's a breakthrough when it comes to stories of the mentally ill in my opinion, which is another reason why it's so special to me. As a society we've almost come to expect real talent to come from people who are seen as 'disturbed' in artistic and creative disciplines. In reality it happens just as often to people who are not involved in creative disciplines.

It highlights too the incorrect assumption that often happens namely that once ill, the sufferer should avoid things they have a passion for when in fact it is control that's needed, not abstinence.

Finally, 'A Beautiful Mind' resonates with me on a very personal level. Unlike John Nash, I have never heard voices or conjured up people from my imagination. However I do recall seeing and writing codes all the time and everywhere; and of mistaking innocent people who were just going about their normal daily routines as sinister characters following and spying on me. It got so bad that I even started to believe that cameras and tape recorders had been placed in my house though I could never find them.

It's a terrifying world to try and live in, the most frightening experience of my life and one I shall never forget albeit that it was very brief in my case (3 months). When I think of that time now, it makes me wonder why I've ever felt nervous or worried by anything since.

In the film, John Nash does hear and see things, which deepens my respect and admiration for him and those who suffer like him. When in hospital I met a lady who constantly heard a very angry man shouting at her, and watched her struggle to resist his instructions to throw herself under a train - it takes a person of exceptional courage and resolve to learn to live a 'normal' life with that going on in their heads. It takes time and a lot of support to learn how to.

Those who are not mentally ill, never like thinking about it unless they have to. They should be aware that there is no logical reason why mental illness couldn't happen to them - why wouldn't it? The brain is just another organ in the body. It is susceptible to all manner of illness and disease.

I can better understand now, that hearing voices and seeing imaginary people is only a minor glitch in how that person's brain is wired, but one which results in profound difficulties for them. Somehow such sufferers have little or no ability to distinguish between the inner monologue of their consciousness (which we all have - we call it thoughts) and imagination (which we also all have).

John Nash's story illustrates an amazing life, but it is only one of many such stories; most are relatively speaking of no interest to many as their lives do not lead to extraordinary achievements. Yep, if you haven't seen "A Beautiful Mind", do so. It is, in its own way, as important an educational film as "Schindler's List".

Another favourite of mine is "Shine" for very similar reasons, however I will leave you to explore it's delights for yourselves. For other films on mental illness, there is of course, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", "Frances" and "Miss Monday" but they do not provide the sense of hope that"Shine" and "A Beautiful Mind" do. In the case of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and"Frances" they are also totally outdated; good historic examples of past forms of mental health care, but thankfully it has improved immensely since those times.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Creative Hats (3)

Briefly, this is how I set about my last blog using the Creative Mind Map.

First I drew a hat as the hub, then added the main headings for creative expression (writing, painting, photography, music, dance etc). The doodled images around them reminded me about the links between them so I drew the lines of connection.

Next, I started thinking about the qualities and techniques that are used in creative disciplines; tricks of the trade like contrast and balance so scribbled those words down - some with doodles and some without. I started thinking about other tricks of other trades utilised more readily when using other hats (modes of thinking - see Mad Hatting blog), and drew mathematical symbols to represent those as they are valid for creativity too. We add, multiply or duplicate, divide and subtract when we are creative too. Sometimes things end up being equal, sometimes they do not.

That in turn got me thinking about an equation that doesn't balance; hence the apples, oranges and bananas scenario. If you look there are 5 oranges, 2 apples and 7 bananas dotted about on this Mind Map. Near the word 'Dance' there is the shape of a horse's head which represents a flamenco dancing horse which I actually saw on stage. The mask the performer wore was superb.

Not all the pictorial references were mentioned because I chose to be selective (e.g. the jigsaw pieces) and I figured some of you would like to imagine for yourselves what they might refer to. Far be it for me to spoil your fun!

Now I hope I've got you going, I would love to see some of your creations, so feel free to post what you can in the comments box or email from this blogsite. The copyright will remain yours if you do send something but remember to only send items you are happy for me to have permission to use either on a website or for a future creative blogsite. Please also remember, I reserve the right to delete any offensive or inappropriate items including comments from this site.

Next time... I'll write about a couple of films I adore about mental health and explain why. The first is 'A Beautiful Mind'.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Creative Hats (2)

Firstly (if you haven't already) I recommend you read my previous blog Creative Imaginative Hat (1).

Way back when, Tony Buzan published his book "Use Your Head" which was a companion to a BBC TV series. Unlike successive books, which specialise in single areas of things that help our brains work, this one also covered things such as, how to improve the speed at which we read and improving our memory. (I perhaps should stop lending books out as it's another one I haven't got back). However, I do remember the section on Mind Maps.

Many people are familiar with Mind Maps, but still seldom use them. I use them far less than I could. In essence they are a means of noting down all your ideas so that they appear in a similar way to the way in which we think them. So, whether it's a novel you're writing, a business or project you're devising; a party you're organising or frankly anything which requires ideas being noted down, Mind Maps are a great way to do it. Here's mine for this blog...

Couple of things I'd like to point out. Most Mind Maps start with a central hub which is usually the subject of the idea e.g. organising a party or wedding. I didn't know what I wanted to include for this blog so I just jotted down words and scribbled and doodled to my heart's content whatever came into my head.

You don't have to go through a central hub or even have one at all. You can draw arrows connecting anything to anywhere. I've also included an image of a computer which isn't connected to anything in mine because I recognise that the brain does sidetrack even when in creative mode. The computer is to remind me to contact a colleague about a project we're working on and because (by drawing this Mind Map), I've come up with new ideas for that project. Nothing to stop you drawing or starting several maps if this happens to you.

The Creative Hat is good for random thoughts; things don't have to link at all and it doesn't matter, nor do you have to use them all when moving on to develop ideas further. You can be selective. What matters is exploring your own creativity, downloading ideas. You can organise them later but the point of Mind Maps is just to freewheel.

It's good to do so as it gives the other hats (or parts of our brains) a rest and can act as safeguard against the build up of stress if done as a relaxation. Putting pressure on yourself to 'be creative' is like telling someone to 'be funny'. If I put myself on the spot like that suddenly I find it really hard, an effort and a chore. Only with practice (until it becomes a way of life) are people able to do that on demand for a living.

The most wonderful thing about creativity is that it has no real rules. If you want to mix watercolours with oil, plaster, rubbish and kitchen waste; do it, try it! No one need know but you. There are no such things as mistakes when you are experimenting creatively; and aside from not harming or distressing anyone including yourself, no rules.

Imagine a kettle drum made out of water and rice paper rising from a volcano, flying into space that polkadotted millipeds wearing hob-nailed boots and ballet shoes, navigate around the universe so that a flamenco-dancing Japanese-speaking horse (whose skin changes as it projects films about Henry Moore sculpting), can introduce aliens (resembling sycamore seeds) can learn about music. Yep, it's mad, but now it's in our imaginations, it can happen too. How else did Lewis Carroll come up with his Wonderland? With imagination all things are possible, which is why it needs its controls.

If you want to - now try to draw, paint, write a poem or story; sculpt, sing, compose music to this totally insane scenario I've just described. Or devise one of your own. Once you start downloading ideas randomly like this, it's very hard to stop. I found I ran out of room to fit all the things that were popping into my head, but I also found I had enough images and words by then to prompt and remember the ideas that I had. Nothing to stop me starting another Mind Map to explore them in more depth.

To help further with your creative endeavours, think in opposites. Think of contrast and impact. Think of texture, of pace, of moods. Where possible don't go with what you think you'd like as an end result... go with wherever it leads you. You can always plan to paint a red tomato, but what would it lead to if you radically decided to paint it blue instead?

It is important to remember that we live in a world that is geared toward learning from mistakes as we never spend as much time analysing our successes as we do errors and misfortunes. With this in mind, it pays to capitalise on this by the bucket load when being creative by making as many mistakes as possible. In the process you will find all sorts of accidents that trigger yet more ideas for when you want to do that serious piece of work, planning or project.

And for those of you who say 'I'm not artistic'... rubbish! Aside from anything else creativity is thought to enhance other brain functions such as logic, probably because of the increase of ideas and the rest you give it from the logic and reason we demand of it all day every day. Most importantly, without imagination, we have no hopes, dreams or aspirations and lose motivation.

Remember though, go too far with this for too long without contact with the mudane, laborious trivialities of reality and you almost certainly will end up very ill indeed. Before long you could find yourselves convinced that 5 oranges + 2 apples = 7 bananas. Yep you'll be bananas, as that's what happens in psychosis. The logic is still there, but it's distorted. 5 oranges + 2 apples = 7 pieces of fruit.

Best keep on the side of fruit than veer toward bananas folks! "Be fruitful!"

After any creative session leave it alone. Don't think about it at all, distract yourself with cooking a meal, doing the washing, the accounts or watching a film. This is fermentation time and it stops the initial dismissal of mistakes we think we've made as well as safeguarding our mental well-being.

By going back and visiting our ideas with fresh eyes after a suitable enough break (sometimes even weeks, months or even years), we look upon them as if for the first time. Not least, by then new ideas will have formed and new influences and sources of inspiration will have entered our lives, which also help us to view our old ones with a new (more objective) perspective.

Next time I will reveal how I arrived at what to write for this, my Creative Mind Map.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Creating Imaginative Hats (1)

I must start with two warnings about imagination.

Firstly, imagination can be dangerous - so long as you know your are wearing your Creative Hat(see previous blog) you are safe. If you don't you could be on your way (as I was) to psychosis which, for me at least, started as the best of all imaginings - it was as if I had a direct line to God and all his answers.

The best analogy I've ever come up with is it was rather like the best dream you've ever had. I felt complete, serene, at peace and at one with the world. However bit by bit the dream became first a little odd and quirky, then uncomfortable, followed by distinctly unpleasant through to sinister and finally a full blown nightmare. My subconscious brain had totally taken over my waking hours.

Initially my brain decided to escape all my troubles by creating a world of its own, but my troubles still existed in the real world and would therefore not leave me alone, hence it ended in a full-blown psychotic episode for which I was quite rightly and thankfully sectioned. I wouldn't have got better otherwise.

That was 12 years ago now, fortunately I've never had another episode and that's mainly because I now check which hat I'm wearing and set a time limit on how long I wear the Creative Hat for. I can be wearing it for a long periods of time (months in fact) so long as I have plenty of breaks and sleep and eat well. The balance for the Creative Hat is reality itself. Always keep in touch with it and participate in it. It was in fact stress that was the root cause not creativity of my run in with psychosis but in an effort to get a holiday from the stress, it was predominantly my Creative Hat that took over. I doubt that psychosis is possible without it.

Lack of food and sleep can all too quickly lead to psychosis. I'm not sure if this story is true but, I heard of an American DJ who tried to break the world record for going without sleep live on air. Medics had to intervene. It can take as little as two weeks without regular sleep, possibly even less depending on your own metabolism to reach this state; but many, many months and even years to fully recover from it. Not least to recover your standing in the world... hence my inclusion of rebuttals to the stigma on this blog site now.

The second warning is about assumptions. Assumptions belong in the world of imagination only. Nowhere else. They are at best, harmless guesses; at worst unjust judgements upon others. A good example is the responses to my telling people of my cat's death. Some people sent lovely messages of condolence, while others didn't. I could guess my heart out as to why in either case but that does not mean I would be right. There can be any number of reasons why people don't respond - from not having heard, to not knowing what to say, to being immersed in their own bereavement or troubles of those closer to them than you are. Always deal in facts, but be prepared for any answer (kind or cruel) when you ask. Always ask people direct. Many a good relationship has been ruined by hearsay. After all none of us like it when others make assumptions about us do we?

I wish I could claim never to make assumptions now but sadly I can't. At least I'm getting good at recognising it when I do though and putting a stop to them immediately.

Warnings over.

I'm currently working on several ideas for inclusion in part-two all involving creative exercises to have some fun with. My starting point will be my second book recommendation "Use Your Head" by Tony Buzan, and in particular the chapter on Mind Maps.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Mad Hatters - A Wonderland

After posting my last blog I looked round and thought for a glimpse I saw my cat Poppy peacefully sleeping on the sofa, until I realised it was a cardigan, and burst into floods of tears. Bereavement (even of a cat) is a special case. Intense emotions sneak up on you out of nowhere, but I stuck to my rules and went with those feelings and set a time limit for them. Initially that time limit is always one day but it can be extended to a week. After that, because of my personal history with depression, I go and seek help from professionals. Sometimes that just means a phone call. Sometimes, when things are more complicated it can mean counselling.

As the years have rolled by I've found I've needed less professional support in times of difficulty, and each time I've gone back it's been to address something different. We learn what we need to at our own pace. And for me it's become a simple choice of "Which do I want to be? Happy or sad?" I'm not so complacent to think there won't be gliches or that I won't need help every now and then.

Counselling should never be seen as you failing, but recognising that you are not super human and that you need a particular outlet. In the UK demand exceeds supply so there's usually a waiting list. Even so it is important that your counsellor is someone you strike a rapport with so that you will tell them everything that is troubling you, which is why you go for an initial assessment. It is for the benefit of both parties. If you ever feel you need counselling, remember to speak up if the one you meet isn't for you, but be good to yourself and say why. They're professionals and won't mind, they have your best interests at heart and want to find the right one for you.

There are many different forms of counselling too for you to pick from; all have one thing in common - they never advise. They are catalyst for you to work through your thoughts and feelings for yourself so that you have control.

My sobbing my heart out last night was entirely necessary, natural and healthy as I hadn't properly cried since Poppy died and those feelings of loss needed to come out. Today I feel better for it and comforted by it too even though it was painful at the time. Now I'm able to continue with normal life again, in the full knowledge that those feelings of loss might trip me up again, but experience has already told me they will gradually do so less and less as time goes by. So...

Six Mad Hats
In Edward de Bono's book 'Six Hats' he highlights that our brains work on many levels. It is now known that different parts of our brain are responsible for different things. Different areas are responsible for languages, others for creativity, others for sexual orientation, another for logic, another for emotions etc. What Edward de Bono points out is that we have the capacity to access different ways of thinking at any point and has given each way of thinking a 'hat'.

The six hats (if I can recall them correctly, and apologies if the labels are not quite right) are:

  • The Emotional Hat
  • The Information or Data Hat
  • The Creative Hat
  • The Problem Hat
  • The Logistics Hat
  • The Decision Hat
To me that's still an incomplete model, but certainly an improvement on the either/or of 'head (logic) vs heart (emotions) model that most of us are used to. Edward claims that many companies now use this structure to help work through problems and issues in meetings. I have not come across this myself in the UK (Data Hat), but can see how it could help (Creative Hat) and think it's a brilliant idea (Emotional Hat).

He cites an example of a meeting at work to illustrate how the mechanics of using the different hats can help save time and make discussions more productive and inclusive, but it is just as useful at family gatherings where major decisions need to be made and passions are running high.

Example: You might have a new product to discuss or an event to arrange and people have strong views about it. He suggests everyone puts on their Emotional Hats first to find out what they are, sharing feelings about it only. Then you might go on to the Creative Hat or the Data (facts) Hat followed by the Problem Hat, then the Logistics Hat before finally arriving at the Decision Hat.
There is no set order in which the group wear the hats, no rules as to how often you wear each one except one: everyone sticks with the same hat until they agree to move on. If anyone digresses, you point out to them which hat it is that they've switched to, "that's you Logistics Hat, can you put your Creative Hat back on please, we can come back to that in a minute." In addition you don't have to wear all the hats in any discussion - some may be unnecessary.

It's impossible to do a whole book justice in a few paragraphs so I recommend you read it for yourselves if you get the chance. It is an easy read. Edward has different colours for each hat - I'm loathed to guess now which colour is which - and advises that people need practice or even the hats themselves to get into the swing of it. I've used the concept many times if only to work through my own decisions e.g. do I really want to go to that party? I don't recommend you use it everyday for everything you do though, but as and when you need to. Try it as a game or if you want to be really silly try out the hats on something everyday like making a cup of tea or brushing your teeth but only as a quick introduction!

There's nothing to stop you making your own new hat either... You might want to create a Communicators Hat or a Spiritual one. There's nothing stopping you doing so. It is important though to agree on the hats you have on the table when in groups at the beginning to avoid confusion!