Friday, 11 January 2019

Let's start the year with kindness.

This is the article that was first published in the York Press on Tuesday, January 8th 2019

Kindness. A month ago, I knew what the subject would be for the New Year column. It appears that I’m not the only newspaper columnist to have chosen it as a topic in the last couple of weeks. Writers express concern that there was a nastier edge in society in 2018. The Queen alluded to it in her Christmas Day message too. Our reflections have been motivated by the apparent increase of intolerance of others and their opinions. Even if one disregards second and third-hand reports, the filmed proof, live radio and traceable social media comments, makes one aware of strong animosity being regularly and freely expressed.

Of course, there are more outlets for people’s opinions, with twenty-four hour television and radio programmes to be filled and social media. Impulsive thoughts, which previously would have stayed in a person’s mind or go no further than anyone in the same room, are now broadcast worldwide. Sometimes it seems we are communicating in the biggest school playground in the world, with name calling and lack of respect for another’s opinion. The ability to be spontaneous without thinking and poor control over emotional outbursts, mean that more hurtful and insulting words are spoken and written than ever before. Adults are providing poor examples to children.

As a child I was taken with a character in the children’s book by Charles Kingsley called ‘The Water Babies’. The woman is called Mrs Do As You Would Be Done By. The name has come to mind recently. If we could behave toward others as we would like to be treated ourselves, it would be a good start. Avoiding the childish retort, “I didn’t start it, it was them”. Kindness is not difficult, is easily learnt and free. It can feel good too.

The sentiment is as old as the Christian, ‘Do unto others as you would have do unto you’. It features in all main religions. Buddism: ’Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.’ Islam: ‘Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you.’  Judaism: ‘What you yourself hate, do to no man’. Hinduism: ‘Treat others as you would yourself be treated.’

Let’s be kinder to one another in 2019 and in turn, kinder to ourselves too. 


Sunday, 30 December 2018

Boundary setting and self-regulation.

This is an *extended article first published in the York Press on Tuesday, December 4th, 2018.

A friend’s nine-month old baby is crawling and climbing, causing her parents some concern, as she has no awareness of danger. There has been chat about the merits of playpens and stair gates are in position. Another friend, who lives in West London, is concerned about her fifteen-year old son. The boy is determined to live a more adventurous life than his parents feel comfortable in allowing. Compromises are negotiated. These are illustrations of boundaries. Boundaries set by caring people, who are concerned as to the safety of their children. Boundaries set and moved by adults, as the child grows and learns how to set their own. Except some adults lack that ability. 

*It concerns me when I meet adults unable to use public transport because they were ferried around in cars all their childhood. They  have grown up with a lack of knowledge of how to use a train or bus timetable and sometimes with a fear transferred by a parent. Another immature response is when an adult says "I wasn't told" to a challenge that some behaviour has caused a problem. Some adults  do not have the capacity to think for themselves, to self-regulate, because they have always been regulated by others. This type of behaviour is at the opposite end of the spectrum to children who are sadly called 'feral', with no boundaries and also with an inability to self-regulate. The imagined background of such children is perhaps at the poorer end of society, but that is not always the case.

*I recall a period in education in the 1980s and the promotion of 'free expression' or 'letting children behave as they want to'. I ran a Toddler Group for twenty-two two year olds, no mums and two helpers. There was a routine ninety minutes of playtime, story, playtime and the children thrived. Social Services visited. They disliked the routine and I was sent on a course, where free expression was promoted. In an immature way, I mildly rebelled in one of the exercises, but was so frustrated. Social Services kept up the impromptu visits, but never found anything less than a room full of happy children and were unable to shut down the group. 

A healthy baby always kept in a playpen for months and years, would amount to child neglect. Teenagers think they are aware of all the dangers outside their front door, but adults, remembering their own near escapes from challenging situations, have different ideas. Initial boundaries are slowly widened to allow for healthy physical and psychological growth. Not giving boundaries can lead to wild behaviour, but films of wild animals kept in captivity, in too small a space for their needs, will show increasingly disturbed behaviour. Humans kept within boundaries that do not take their development into account, can develop mental health problems. Is too much ‘helicopter parenting’ leading to an increase in some of these problems?

A teaching tale: A king and queen had a precious son, but were told by a mystic, that he would be killed by a wild animal. They decided never to allow him outside the castle walls. They gave the child everything he could want inside the walls. This included a magnificent room where jungle scenes were painted on the walls. At the top of one wall, artists painted lions and tigers. One day a workman left the room with a tall ladder in position against a wall. The boy, wandering around the castle, came across the room and intrigued by the animals, wanted to get nearer them. He climbed the ladder, reached out to touch a tiger, fell off the ladder and died.

We learn how to set our own boundaries of behaviour. If we always relied on others for setting our boundaries, our emotional growth will remain stunted. 


Thursday, 29 November 2018

Putting a crisis into perspective.

This is the extended* column first published in the York Press on November 6th 2018.

I have been in Liverpool, attending the annual conference for Soroptimist International Great Britain and Ireland. ‘Women inspiring action, transforming lives.’ There were inspirational speakers, who have worked their way through the most challenging of circumstances. Reports were presented by some of the three hundred and fifty clubs, about the educating, empowering and enabling work Soroptimist volunteers have achieved around UK and the world. Projects which are only a drop in the ocean of Poverty, Loneliness, Slavery, Abuse, Genital Mutilation, Human Trafficking, Imprisonment, Hunger, Hygiene, Disease and Education. *Making a difference. Transforming lives.

Returning home I found that the fridge freezer had broken down with resulting problems, my husband’s smartphone had broken, the car repair bill was massive and Christmas is just around the corner.

My husband became a little ’Dad’s Army’, along the lines of, “We’re all doomed.’ (* It was actually more Frankie Howard, "Woe, woe and thrice woe", but I thought younger readers might not remember that, so changed to Dad's Army. An older TV programme, but still regularly shown on TV. ) I stopped him and said, “I’ve just spent three days hearing about the appalling misfortune of millions of people worldwide. Please get this into perspective.” Irritating and inconvenient our problems may be, but life threatening or life limiting they are not.

* We are used to hearing about Third World Poverty, but surely in 2018, the UK should not have to have charities supporting Food Banks and Period Poverty schemes. The recent figures for the latter, enabling hundreds of girls to attend school are heartening.

Two speakers gave these words of  wisdom. The one time hostage, Terry Waite, spoke about appreciating the small, free things in life, when he experienced a moment of colour in his bleak, black and white, five years in captivity. From a momentarily uncovered window, he had managed a glimpse of a bunch of flowers for a few seconds. He also spoke about his mental survival being due to continually exercising and challenging his brain. Terry’s imagination saved him and he maintains that stretching himself mentally every day, keeps his brain from atrophying at seventy-nine.

A former UK police officer, Ellie Bird Lenawarungu, now married and working in Kenya, spoke about empowering villagers to enable themselves. More powerful than aid workers doing the enabling. I have heard similar from relief workers working in disaster zones. Teachers spoke afterwards, agreeing that if pupils had some part of a project in school, they felt some ownership and therefore respected the work more. 

One of the problem with teenagers and their mental health, may be that instead of adults empowering children to enable themselves, too many adults are doing the enabling themselves, leaving the children entering adulthood, lacking life skills. 

*In this busy world, it is generally easier and quicker in the short-term for adults to do tasks, but in the long-term, we disable our children, not making them able adults.

Empower and encourage others to enable themselves.


Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Anxiety and misusing the imagination.

This is the *extended Wellbeing Column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, October 9th 2018.
Anxiety. A word that is increasingly appearing in the media. A fear of something, generally the unknown, allowing imaginations to run wild, creating emotional distress, sometimes leading to debilitating mental health conditions.

* Anxiety conditions and the misuse of the imagination have been around for centuries. 2000 years ago, Emperor Marcus Aurelius is quoted, "Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous, being but creatures of your fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thoughts sweep over the entire universe." In other words, stop imagining the worst and look at the bigger picture.

The first seminar I attended on Anxiety started with two scenarios about Presentation Anxiety. You have to make a presentation. You walk on the stage, trip over and drop your notes. On falling, you fracture your leg. Taken to hospital, you develop an infection and do not survive. Listening to this, we, the students, laughed. Then the lecturer gave another scenario. You walk on stage. You give a magnificent presentation. A television producer is in the audience and offers you a TV series. You become famous and very rich. We, the students, laughed louder. In fact, the lecturer suggested, neither of these scenarios would happen. The presentation was unlikely to be the best ever heard, but neither would it be the worst. The scenarios are the work of a misused imagination.

In my practice, I met people with a variety of anxiety conditions. ‘Born worriers’, always had a parent or main carer who were also ‘born worriers’. The behaviour was learnt and could be cognitively challenged and unlearnt.  Nurture, not nature. 

Some people feel anxious because they are unable to control a situation, especially one on a national or international scale. One solution is to find what part of the situation can be controlled. For instance, by writing a letter, joining an action group, signing a petition. Another solution is to confine a set time for doing nothing else, but worrying. Once a day or once a week. Realising the futility of wasting that time on something that cannot be changed, can work for some people.

*Some temporary states of anxiety can be helpful at times. It can heighten performance and sends some helpful hormones around the body. Too much though, will flood the mind and body, causing a shutdown. The example I learnt was that the spin cycle on a washing machine is needed in short bursts. It wouldn't work and would break down if it was on constant spin cycle. To have the brain on a constant spin cycle is damaging. Techniques can be learnt to help when levels of anxiety are felt to be rising to quickly and too high.

Recently I was driving to a meeting and had a serious puncture. I worried about the cost, the inconvenience and of letting people down. It all seemed unsolvable. Calming down, I put it into perspective. The unexpected cost was frustrating, but could be paid. Five years before, to the hour, my husband was having his life saved by the doctors in Scarborough Hospital. I used my phone to let people know what was happening. My absence could be covered. 

* This took a little time. At first, my emotional arousal prevented me from thinking logically, but I worked on it. Self administered Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT.)

“I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
Mark Twain


Sunday, 30 September 2018

Write now, before it’s too late.

This is the *extended column, first published on Tuesday, September 11th 2018.

Last week I heard some sad news. As it has been reported widely, you may be aware of the news too. A BBC Radio 5 Live presenter and newsreader, Rachael Bland, has died. 40 years old, married and with a 3 year old son, she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in November 2016. Rachael has been writing a blog and contributing to a ground-breaking and award winning BBC podcast, ‘You, Me and the Big C’.

I first encountered Rachael on late night radio. In 2008/9 I was regularly travelling between London and York, keeping an eye on my father who was unwell. I needed the radio to help lull me into sleep. At the time, Richard Bacon was a presenter on BBC 5 Live and Rachael was the newsreader. The partnership developed and a silly segment was introduced from 12.30am to 1am. Listeners took part and I became a regular contributor. This programme carried me through difficult and distressing times and the listeners became known to one another through social networking. Richard proved mercurial, but was kept in order by Rachael. Such was the ‘specialness’of these thirty minutes of radio, that members of the community were invited to a recording of the programme at Richard’s home and also to the recording of the last ever broadcast by the team, at the BBC Theatre. All in the early hours. It was fun, surreal at times and special.

Everyone’s lives have moved on and through Facebook, the community saw Rachael marry and have a child. Then cancer arrived.

I have no idea what this diverse group of people meant to Richard and Rachael. I thought that I must write to her to say thank-you for her radio contribution. She wouldn’t have known what it had meant to me. In the same way, in 2010, I wrote a thank-you to a friend’s mother who had been wonderful to me, a rebellious teenager with an unhappy home life. She replied, saying it was one of the nicest letters she had ever received and that she had no idea what she had meant to me.

Is there anyone you would like to say thank-you? Don’t leave it another week. Do it now…before it’s too late.

*I wasn't going to extend this article. All that needed writing was written. Except that I was invited to Rachael's Thanksgiving Service, held after a private funeral.  As we used to say on the radio programme mentioned, 'it was an honour and a privilege' to have been asked. It was a very beautiful, but heartbreaking service with two to three hundred people in attendance. Three other people who had taken part in the programme nine years ago sat with me, as a tribute to the part Rachael's talents had played in our very different lives. Her husband, Steve, has said, "at the time when Rachael's body was at it's weakest, her mind was at its strongest." The last few months of Rachael's life have left a priceless legacy. If you haven't listened to the podcast series, even if you don't have a particular interest in cancer and death, try to listen. The final two podcasts are extraordinary radio, due to the honesty and humour of Rachael, Deborah and Lauren. Thank you girls. This is my thank-you letter to you, with love.


Saturday, 1 September 2018

I really really need it. Do you? Or do you just want it?

This is the *extended article, first published The Press York, on Tuesday, August 14th, 2018.

A marketing e-mail popped into the in-box. The subject read, ‘The Hot List - the five must-haves to add to basket now.’ Really? ‘Must-haves’? Must I? I opened the email to see what I couldn’t do without - NOW. ‘A trophy jacket you need now.’ The word ‘trophy’ was a new one on me for describing clothes, but aspiring to be a winner, I must have the trophy jacket now. The ‘anything-but-ordinary’ bra. Yes, I must have that, as I don’t want to feel ordinary wearing a piece of clothing most people won’t see. ‘The loveliest kid’s dress.’ Obviously another ‘must-have’. My granddaughter must be the loveliest in any company. ‘A genius washbag’. Pretty material, pretty functional, pretty much like other cleverly designed washbags. But I ‘must-have’ the one that hints at being clever for purchasing it.

I don’t need these items, but I must have these things, otherwise I’ll won’t feel good enough. I’ll click on the order form now and buy them with my credit card. Easy. They will arrive and I may or may not use them. Strangely I won’t feel any better than I did before I read the email. I may even feel worse.

*The fear of being thought, 'not good enough' is a driving force behind the majority of unhelpful and emotionally driven behaviours. These in turn can become mental health problems. A mental health problem often shows in symptoms of sub-threshold Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where the emotionally driven behaviour is the result of a traumatic reaction to something based in childhood. It's not just feeling 'not good enough' in the present day, it's about carrying those feelings for years, decades, perhaps even a lifetime. I have read hundreds of articles, case studies and life stories. In over 90% of them, the person reports childhood feelings of 'not being good enough', often blaming other people. These feelings can lead to unhelpful behaviours or more helpfully, the driving force behind success. I have a brilliant friend in their seventies, who has been mentally unwell for two years. Through their life, no project, whether domestic or professional was good enough, with mental exhaustion as a result. Their behaviour is emotionally driven by a fear of their father's anger at 'not being good enough', as a child. It's sad. They are not alone. On the other hand, a child growing up with feelings of 'not being good enough', can, as they mature into adulthood, develop a 'I'll show them' attitude and achieve success. 

One of the first credit cards on the market decades ago, came with the slogan, ‘Takes the waiting out of wanting.’ It fulfilled that statement and with thousands of other credit cards available, the nation is now sinking under a sea of debt. We spend our time buying things we don’t need, with money we haven’t got. Short-term gain, long-term pain.

The wail from children can be heard every day in shops. ‘I need it, I really, really need it.’ Adults can be heard saying it too. Adults who may seek help wondering, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me, I’ve got everything I want.” They may have, but they don’t have everything they need.  What are those needs? The giving and receiving love and attention - healthily. A meaning and purpose. Being stretched and feeling a sense of achievement. Being part of a community. A feeling of security. A sense of control. Time for privacy and reflection - though not too much.

* Returning to the feelings of 'not being good enough'. If, for any reason, a child at some point in their upbringing, felt that they were 'not good enough' to get a need met, as mentioned above, their ability to manage those feelings in adulthood can result in emotional immaturity. Sometimes, it can be a perception and not the truth, but the result can be the same. Hence, some adults behaving like children. Also why some adults are 'Chasing Rainbows', in their often exhausting, damaging and pointless search to have those childhood needs met in adulthood. That was then, this is now. The past can never be changed, but the present can.

Needs are for now, wants can wait. So can the ‘must-haves’.


Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Life changes and needing someone to talk to.

This is the *extended article first published in The York Press on Tuesday, July 7th 2018.

The recent Press headline shocked and saddened me. ‘York’s Spurriergate Centre has suddenly closed.’ Memories of February 1994 returned.

*The Spurriergate Centre offered a variety of community-based services including a child-friendly restaurant, separate cafe, shop and counselling. While it was based in an old church and had a Christian ethos, the welcome was for everyone. 

I had moved to York from Buckinghamshire in January 1994 and remarried. I knew nowhere and no-one, other than my new husband, who had unexpectedly relocated in the previous October. My daughter had married and moved to Belfast and my son was studying in Kent. I left twenty years of friendships and an excellent job with Waitrose, a supermarket which didn’t arrive in York for another sixteen years. Due to its absence, my working life changed beyond my imagination. 

*If Waitrose or John Lewis had been in York in 1994, I would have transferred without any difficulty. I may have dropped to part-time, but it would have been most unlikely that I would have left the Partnership. With their generous working conditions, I may still have been there or collecting a useful pension. Another retailing establishment would probably have employed me, but working for an ordinary company rather than a Partnership Company, would not have been easy, which is why I chose to do something completely different.  I knew enough about myself to know that I didn't want office work, but enjoyed an ever-changing environment with a variety of people. What about hotel work?

I allowed myself two weeks to settle in before looking for work. Deciding to find an agency for reception work, I looked in Yellow Pages. Turning to Agencies. the top box advertisement was for York Nannies and Nurses. Bingo! As a trained nursery nurse I begun a busy life caring for children all over the city and environs.

* I hadn't given a thought to returning to childcare. I worked short-term in private homes over a fifty-mile radius, ran university creches and ended up doing elderly visiting too. Late one Friday morning in June 1996, the phone rang. It was the Agency asking if I was interested in an unusual job that afternoon. It would have been so easy to tell them I wasn't interested, but I didn't.

This culminated in life-changing work at The Retreat Psychiatric Hospital, helping a mother with a new baby. Six years later I qualified as a psychotherapist and opened a practice in York. But I digress.

In the first few months of 1994, my husband was at work and I had little interaction with other adults. My greatest concern was that in a personal  emergency, who could I talk to in York? Who would listen? One day, walking around the city, I found The Spurriergate Centre. Entering, I had a coffee, a delicious piece of cake and sat at a table with a stranger. The jigsaw of my new life was now complete. I felt at ease, as I had met people who would have time to listen if I needed them. I also went to the library and found out about groups I could join and in time made new friends.

* There wasn't enough room to write this in the original article, but one of my major concerns was what would happen if the marriage didn't work out. I could ring friends, but it wasn't the same as having them around the corner. The months went by and all seemed well, but I remained concerned that I could be stranded away from everyone I knew if anything happened. I can still recall the extraordinary relief when we made it to our 1st anniversary. Now our Silver Anniversary is around the corner and despite rocky times due to work, health and family problems, we're still going strong.

The internet makes such a life change easier these days, but one to one personal contact is important. Hence the new ‘Chat and Natter' initiative in some Costa cafes, for people on their own who need to connect with another person.

A recent letter in The Press from the Trustees, says that some of the services at Spurriergate are still available. That is good news.