Safe Place, Safe People

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I have been reading Getting Past Your Past, by Francine Shapiro to gain a better understanding of EMDR before I actually start it next week. One of the crucial preparations in EMDR before doing the trauma work is to consider a safe place.

A safe place is somewhere I can visit in my head. It is somewhere where I know the layout, the look and feel of it, but also the smell, the temperature, the sensations of it. It is somewhere I know well enough that my mind can take me there and feel safe in the same way that I would feel safe if I was actually there. It serves as a place to hold you where the bad things that might come up in therapy cannot get to you. And as such it’s important to consider the right safe place that has no negative associations.

For my mother this would be her mother’s garden, in the middle of nowhere in the south of France. The heady smell of wheat being harvested, the noise of cicadas in the morning, the life that is predominantly run by women. This would have been hers. I considered my favourite tree from there that I could sit in with a book, the perfect reading space. But the tree got blighted and chopped down. Just being in the garden anywhere would count except that it’s now my sister’s garden and I have so many issues about how that was handled that it is all tainted. That has been my go to place for so many years. So where next?

I contemplated this whilst sitting in my comfortable reclining chair in the garden in the sunshine alongside a book and a cup of tea. It was quiet and peaceful and I suddenly realised that this is my safe space. This has been my haven ever since we moved here. My ex hardly even came out in it so no shouting took place here. My children pop out occasionally usually to find me; I’ve sat out here with friends and family but for the most part it is mine. In the years that I have been here I have planted according to what I want to see and it has become a messy green thriving slightly chaotic and loosely bounded garden that is mine. This is my safe place and I was sitting in it. No wonder it was hard to visualise it inside my head when all I had to do was open my eyes and be in it.

My counsellor said “what a privilege” when I told her this and she is right (she’ll appreciate reading that). It is a privilege to consider part of my home a safe space when so many of us do not feel safe at home. I didn’t for many years because of my parents, siblings, partners, or simply being run ragged by my children. I have a safe place and I do not have to leave my own home to get there. That is awesome and it is a privilege.

I also considered safe people in the same vein. Not as a requirement for EMDR, but because feeling safe is a privilege and when so many people don’t make me safe, for reasons that are mostly about me rather than them it’s important to consider safe people.

Now I struggle to say this out loud as it feels like bragging (and gushing) but my children are my safe people. I am not saying that I want to discuss my deepest darkest woes with them, but I can and sometimes I do. I can offer my views and thoughts. I can talk about what I learn in therapy, my vulnerabilities and my fears. I might sometimes get a juvenile response of “sucks to be you” but even that is said with a warmth and affection that keeps any sting at bay and replaces it with a warm sense of belonging.

I am still considering what an absolute privilege it is that I have a really positive relationship with all my children. We do not shout at each other, at least not in anger; I literally cannot remember the last time we had a “proper” fight. I am by no means suggesting that my children are perfect because that would be a ridiculous notion. They are often wrong and we do disagree. But I belong to them and they belong to me and when we are together there is a strong sense that we can take on the world and win. I can relax with them. I can be me. I can talk absolute horse shit. I am accepted, occasionally appreciated, mostly respected and at times laughed at. But there is always love if rarely explicitly expressed.

I need my friends, obviously, and am grateful for those really close friends with whom I can be open and honest, who can be my safe harbour in times of need as well as a source of escape and different conversations. But really, my confidence gets boosted by spending time with my children and considering how it is an absolute privilege to look forward to spending time together, to enjoy being in each other’s company. They are my people and I consider myself lucky to have them.

Food as Memory

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I was going to have a stab at my self-development essay but this is what springs to mind. If we consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs then food is on almost every level. At the lowest, food is a basic necessity to keep us alive and there may be little pleasure in subsistence eating. The further up we go the more it can become about the pleasure of eating good food whether alone or with others. We may enjoy and/or share the preparation. It may be symbolic of belonging to a culture or faith, cooked and eaten as part of a ritual, or simply a birthday cake.

We have hang ups about our food. We may always clean our plate through fear of whether there will be a next meal. We may rush our food because someone else might take it. We may crave certain foods because we never had them as a child. There may have been forbidden foods due to parents’ culture or for health reasons. Attitudes to food vary across cultures and continents and between families. Books have been, and will continue to be written that explore our complex relationship with food.

All of which is a lengthy introduction to my food memories.

My paternal grandmother baked her own bread. The anticipation, as a child, of waking up in her house to the smell of home-made bread, and bacon that would go under the grill once I got out of bed spurred me to get dressed quickly. My mouth waters at the very thought. Wensleydale cheese was always present and went very nicely on her bread too. She was a good plain cook who didn’t make a fuss about food but just got on with it. I loved her steak and kidney pie or pudding, although I wouldn’t normally eat kidneys but not much else sticks in the memory. She made chocolate fridge cake which my children still love and what is now called millionaire’s shortbread. She was very un-snobbish about food. We would always visit the fish and chip shop and it was way into my teenage years by the time they replaced the fish counter that my father couldn’t see above as a child. Being in Yorkshire, it was all cooked in beef fat and there were scraps (or bits, depending on where you’re from). We would also walk down to the local ice cream dairy and get slabs of vanilla ice cream that we would eat between wafers or occasionally a cornet but the pleasure was in walking slowly back home, enjoying our ice cream and joint pleasure in it. We’d also enjoy eating them in cold weather (which made them last longer) and watching passers-by express surprise in their faces as they saw us. We did drink tea by the gallon and it would take me several weeks after a holiday  to return to merely drinking it by the pint. She would always have a small jar full of Midget Gems, a chewy fruit gum, that she didn’t mind me enjoying even when I didn’t have a tickle at the back of my throat.

From Yorkshire we travel to the south of France for a very different attitude to food from my maternal grandmother. She grew most of her own food, pretty much everything she could to supplement a small  pension and I learned to enjoy simple fresh food that was grown under perfect conditions. We got baguettes from the local bakery which made the best crunchy, chewy holey baguettes (and occasionally burnt) and croissants or pain au chocolat on Sundays. That was breakfast and when I was very small I would bring people breakfast in bed. Then, if I wasn’t paying attention, sometime between 10 and 11am my grandmother would cry out that she was feeling faint and needed help so I would go and pour out the white wine and we would have a glass or two while finishing off the morning chores and getting lunch ready. Lunch would be tomato salad, with “our friend Basil” if he was growing well, another salad, fresh bread, cheese, pate, rillettes and the much loved saucisson. It was a table spread full of ordinary local food that tasted fantastic. Unless too hot we would always start with my soup as my grandmother made the best, sometimes with vegetables going from earth to saucepan in a very short space of time but always with a lusciousness that attests the quality of home grown ingredients. Dinner would be much of the same, or especial favourites like black pudding (boudin noir), green beans and scrambled eggs. She wasn’t much of a meat eater and would only cook it if we were there. We drank red wine with our meals that came from the farm across the road who only made enough for themselves and a few neighbours. It varied in quality from rough to vinegar but it was what we drank. I remember as a child the price going up to a franc per litre and becoming aware of inflation. They would also bring over an occasional rabbit, skinned, considering my grandmother a softie for asking them to cut the head off first. If corn was being grown (for the cattle, not for humans) we would ask permission, get everything ready and then go and choose our own cobs, getting them into a pan to cook as fast as we could. We would spend hours round the table, sitting, chatting, drinking, discussing everything. Food was important to plan for as my grandmother was used to a visiting van which diminished from twice a week to once a fortnight and there were no shops within walking distance so we would consider food markets and supermarket trips a necessity of any holiday that would also help her stock up. We would have one gourmet meal out each holiday that may involve confit, magret, foie gras, rognons but we would also go out for more ordinary meals (although in that region, no food is ordinary) and go to Routier cafes where you get whatever they are cooking and one hotel restaurant we went to each year for the best cream of mushroom sauce ever until the proprietors died. Food was hugely important but it was part of life, interwoven with daily habits and views. Living in the agricultural countryside meant being aware of the rhythm of the seasons and growing your own food gave that personal and practical insight and awareness. A favourite book of my grandmother’s, Philip Oyler’s The Generous Earth, puts all this perfectly.

And so to my parents. All of I sudden I don’t want to write any more. They were fussy about food, talking about it at length. They liked European and Mediterranean/North African food and still do. They were adventurous within quite those quite limited boundaries. There were childish foods that were frowned on, like mashed potato, ice cream other than “adult” flavours of pistachio and coffee, junk food such as fish fingers, burgers take away pizzas etc. Having said that my mother and I used to have Toast Toppers for lunch. My father loved lemon so lemon sorbet, lemon tart, lemon anything was always good. We would have Chinese, kebabs or Indian takeaway, and of course fish and chips. If we had roast my father would say two helpings of meat is enough and then sit and pick at the joint for himself which I always felt very unfair. I could fill up on potatoes and veg, not him. He would always assume that if he was full, we would all be full and was at times amazed if one of us was still hungry. Mostly we talked or sat in silence and sometimes they did the crossword and I read a book. I learned to eat quickly and quietly and to not complain if I didn’t much like it. They taught me to value good food, whether it’s fancy or plain, to look at the quality of ingredients rather than the number of them. She did host dinner parties and I would always help, eventually being left to make pudding by myself and it was always my responsibility to set a nice table. After a supermarket shop my mother would at times treat me to a fast food burger and chips whilst staring at me in surprise that I took pleasure in eating it. I cannot actually think of dishes that my mother cooked that bring up the warm memories that I describe above from my grandmothers. I remember lemon meringue pie, crumbles, bolognese, cottage pies, roasts and later cassoulet, waterzooi but very few specific dishes and she made an enormous variety. That says something.

What have I retained; what have I passed on to my children?

I had joy in cooking until I had to do it every day for a variety of taste buds and lost it. Now I rarely spend more than 30 minutes preparing a meal) but I try to pay attention to what I want to eat and what I like, rather than what I feel I should. There are foodstuffs from my childhood that I absolutely yearn for, and others I am happy to have let go of.

I feel that food is the one area that I completely blew with my children although they are now making better food choices. My eldest enjoys cooking and experimenting. The second is not particularly bothered as long as there’s plenty of chocolate in some form and a minimal amount of veg. The third has more of an adult palate and shares my joy of salad, as long as there is feta. My youngest eating is very limited and he will get very stubborn about not eating foods he doesn’t like, which includes all fruit and veg. And yet he still grows.

I suppose what I have taught my children most food-wise, is that they are allowed to choose, to refuse, to like different things, to not clear their plate, to eat between meals, to have pizza for breakfast and muesli for dinner. I encourage them to try different/new foods/dishes but I don’t force it. I think they all recognise the difference between eating food as fuel because you’re hungry and eating something that gives pleasure to the senses as well. Between us as a family we eat chips with mayonnaise, ketchup, or vinegar, but never a mix.

Stress in Early Childhood

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I’m currently reading “Getting Past Your Past” by Francine Shapiro, inventor of EMDR. This is making me reflect on early incidents and pre-memories that caused negative feelings, if not trauma. I am not writing them out of a sense of  poor me, but rather as a need to acknowledge these early factors.

  • Stress in utero: My mother was hugely stressed whilst pregnant with me. They moved to a new city, with one child starting secondary school and the other a new primary school; my father always got anxiety or depressed when he started a new job (which he never acknowledged which made it harder to deal with); they weren’t happy with the move and returned to London shortly after having me.
  • Four hourly feeding: my mother will talk of the agonies of listening to me cry for three hours but four hourly feeding was the recommended practice at the time and she didn’t want to break the rules. I fed mine on demand and struggled to last a couple of minutes if one was crying.
  • Two weeks in Skye: it sounds like a lovely idea now, but my father carried me on his back for our first holiday in my first year. They still chuckle over the fact that I cried for the whole two weeks, apparently.
  • Move to London: around a year old, my father started a new job and we moved back to London, so more stress all around. My eldest sister was excited by moves whereas my middle sister was stressed out about them.

Actual memories (up to age 7 and the family’s next move) – I’m trying to keep to the ones that still piss me off or feel entrenched.

  • Being bored: I don’t remember feeling punished but in my first year at school I was left to keep quiet at the back of the class whilst everyone else did alphabet flashcards. I could already read and school didn’t know how to handle that.
  • Fear of an upstairs fire: I have no memory of being scared by an actual fire inside or out; I always liked fires; but I remember planning my route upstairs in the daytime, what I wanted and where it was, so that I could race to get it and be back downstairs in the minimum of time. I don’t know whether I was encouraged to play nicely downstairs and that put me off upstairs. I have no idea where that fear came from but it was very real and went away after we moved.
  • No choice walkies: whether day trips or holidays, staying at home was not an option. Sharing a tent with my sister and midges in the rain, trailing along behind, controlling hunger and thirst, not having a choice and having little time to enjoy the countryside. What’s not to like!
  • Pubs: my sisters and I all agree that after a walk we would get a packet of crisps and possibly a drink to share between us outside a pub while our parents went inside to drink beer and eat food. One of the few memories that we agree on.
  • Scrabble: I have no memory of this but my mother tells me it caused her to consider leaving my father and us children. He bragged to her that he had cheated at Scrabble and I hadn’t noticed and he had beaten me. My father, an adult, was ecstatic that he’d beaten a 5 year old at Scrabble. No wonder I never liked it. He hated losing any and all games.
  • Public meltdown in the playground: I didn’t want to go home with this girl to play but my mother needed me looked after and had arranged it. I wasn’t friends with this girl but she didn’t deserve my floods of tears as witnessed by all our class mates. Was it just that I had no choice?
  • First bully age 6: it was my first amateur play and I think he mocked me a little from the superior vantage point of being a few years older. I might have mentioned it to my mother but she would have told me not to worry, to ignore him or walk away. I had no idea how to respond then and I still struggle.
  • 30 second blank age 5: walking back from the fair? with my oldest sister and her boyfriend through a car park. I remember feeling happy, possibly holding hands and then he said or did something and I never wanted to see him again. Maybe he just poked fun at my sister and nothing more. My sister remembers nothing.
  • Injustice, not being heard: first year of junior school, through the swing doors. I read a book, 3 lines per page, 20 odd pages, in five minutes and went to change it. My teacher didn’t believe me and made me copy out the book for the rest of the lesson. She could have asked me about the story, checked my understanding but no, I was just punished for good reading. The injustice of it still makes me angry.
  • Car travel: I’d be sandwiched between my sisters when we all travelled. As the smallest I would be in the middle seat. All holidays had massive car journeys (Scotland, Wales, Lake District or France) and my car sickness was an inconvenience not to be tolerated so I learned to sleep through as much as possible, lying down in the back after my sisters had decided who would have my head and who my feet. Sometimes the car would have to stop so I could throw up.
  • being ill: A clear sign of weakness; my prompt return to school was my father’s concern. There is something about being ignored but I cannot put my finger on a clear memory. I remember having measles, and bowls of custard when ill but mostly being left to sleep away illness on my own in bed. One time I remember feeling grateful when my mother sat with me for an hour in the evening despite having guests as I felt so awful she couldn’t leave me be.

My sisters fought physically a lot, but I don’t remember being bothered by it. Nor do I remember noticing the stress my mother went through trying to get my sister to school before she dropped out, or discussions over her pregnancy and termination. Yet there must have been plenty of tension. My other sister discovered God at a similar time and that too would have caused some intense discussions behind closed doors (or more likely out on walks).

Then we moved and everything changed but the foundations to how I reacted to what followed were already set.

Change

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I have chosen change. I have chosen the harder path for my life that means fighting against my childhood and experiences that held me back in order to be free, in order to be an unfettered me.

The first time I actively chose change was when my eldest was born. On my return from the hospital with him I sat down and painfully contemplated the reality that one day I would have to divorce his father if I was going to protect my child by giving him a safer and more loving upbringing than I had. It took me a few more years to carry that out.

In the same vein the second time I chose change was when I threw out my then partner and father of my three younger children. That too took me a number of years to achieve and there was an incredible amount of emotional pain.

I chose change when I sought counselling. I later chose change when I chose to pay for private counselling, having chosen to believe that I was worth it.

Change meant rupturing the close relationship with my mother, by choosing to no longer collude with her against my father.

Change has meant accepting the relationship I have with my parents, and indeed the childhood they gave me, and to stop wishing it could be different.

Choosing change has meant thinking really hard about how I parent my children, how I bring them up with the minimum amount of hang ups (at least) to be decent human beings who strive for their own growth, capable of making their own decisions.

Through counselling and parenting I have considered how I have changed and what led me forwards. Considering who I am and who I want to be is in a sense the biggest change of all as I have always been either the product of my childhood, or a mother, but without a real sense of identity or autonomy beyond that.

My search for self has therefore led me to choose change again, this time to embark on what has turned out to be four years of learning about counselling with the initial aim of learning more about myself that had turned into a desire to become a professional counsellor.

What have I learned during these four years?

# to understand how the decisions that my parents made, and theirs before them, informed our family life and my upbringing, and in turn, not just to accept this and stop being angry at them but eventually to forgive them.

# to find, with the person-centred approach, a framework that helped explain how I was who I was and who I was, that made intuitive sense.

# to consider what I actually believe in, morally, ethically, personally, politically etc. To really consider my values and principles, what it is that I choose to consider important that isn’t an introjected view.

# to find, the parallels between the PCA and the child-centred approach that my parenting evolved into and through that external validation come to accept that I am more than a good-enough parent. I still hesitate to say that I am an excellent parent but I am proud of the adults that my children have become and am always grateful for the occasional explicit external validation from them.

# to begin, through pride in parenting, to develop a more positive sense of self, which is where the greatest struggle remains

Choosing change has always seemed to come with immense personal emotional pain, especially when it’s an important change. I accept that it may always be thus but shall not let it stop me seeking growth.

It’s All OK

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It’s OK to be kind.
It’s OK to need help.
It’s OK to ask.
It’s OK to say no.
It’s OK to have a voice.
It’s OK to look after yourself.
It’s OK to need people.
It’s OK to be on your own.
It’s OK to make your own decisions.
It’s OK to let go.
It’s OK to feel angry.
It’s all OK.

I dare to dream.

May I grow towards the light.
May I find peace.
May I be free.
May I feel good enough.

The Struggle for Self-Compassion

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There are lots of things I could be writing about in these current times but they aren’t the issue that is pressing. I wake every morning and my competing thoughts are what’s happened in the world overnight and I need to get on with my essay.

On the one hand writing essays seems trivial during world turmoil and it is indeed hard to focus. On the other hand the rest of life is slipping away in an irrelevance that gives me the space to focus, or at least to try.

As we had our last online college session before we broke up for Easter I came to the sudden realisation that the anguish I feel when approaching assignment writing is something that I only feel when I am writing assignments, not when I am doing any other form of writing. I feel anxiety when approaching lots of tasks in my life and have learned to manage that anxiety, to recognise it, accept it and to work through it so that I can accomplish whatever it is, even if I have to do it with a churning stomach.

So why is academic writing so special? I am doing a Diploma, Level 4 and this started with a Level 3 Certificate. For level 4 assignments are around the 5,000 words and for level 3 they were around 3,000. If you’ve done a full dissertation at degree level or above you will reasonably see these as trivial. And I would not disagree.

I could criticise the assignments themselves: they’re not essays where I can choose to explore ideas in response to a question. They’re 50 questions each which all have to be answered in a very tick-boxy way that must answer the exact question in the right way and no more, allowing very little room for creativity. Each of us on the course finds our own way through, some with greater ease than others.

For me though, my way of getting through these is with agony and lots of avoidance, that serve only to increase the anxiety. I delay getting started and then, once the deadline gets closer I delay getting started on a daily basis by finding lots of other urgent things I need to get out of the way before I can focus. Except that due to general lack of sleep I struggle to focus in the afternoons and even if I try relaxing in the afternoon I cannot come back to it in the evening so delaying getting started tends to ruin it for the day. This all sounds complicated and it is but it is how I justify my avoidance.

The realisation that all this anxiety was purely for academic writing gave me pause for thought. I had previously thought that anxiety over writing was due to comparing myself with my father who was a journalist and made a successful career out of writing. Naturally I compare myself unfavourably to him even though I rarely enjoyed his work and have never managed to get beyond the turgid first chapter of his second book (there wasn’t a third). I also let myself off the hook somewhat for having spent six formative years in a francophone school with no learning in English so the only writing I did was occasional letters to my grandmothers.

These on their own are not sufficient cause for the physical trauma that I relive in my body before approaching and assignment: I tremble, I feel sick to my stomach, my head goes all woolly and my capacity to think vanishes; it’s as if my brain has decided to shut down rather than work. It all hurts and I want to go for a lie down. It is genuinely exhausting and that’s before I’ve written a single word.

Part of writing this blog initially was to let me explore my ability to write without assessment, judgement or any form of external validation. Somehow doing it in a paper diary didn’t work for me. Over the years I’ve had to write boring clear letters on which much depended like funding for 2son’s future, legal and financial matters. They filled me with dread and then I got on and did them. Now the dread is a lot less. When I got my degree many years ago I did one module that required essays and really struggled with them, even though I enjoyed the material. So this is nothing new.

I re-read a post of mine on School Reports and what they brought up. Just reading through it brings up the physical dread detailed above. But made me realise that it’s not just the fear of being judged that is present but it’s the bigger fear of being belittled, of being mocked and laughed at, by both peers and tutors, as happened one way or another throughout my school life right from day one. It’s not just the fear of not getting external validation but that of getting ripped to shreds instead. My father reinforced this with his dismissal of anything less than perfect and telling me to get on with it and ignore emotions. So I learned to make myself small and that remained.

We’ve had a change of tutor this year and I do not trust either him or his colleague to mark my essays fairly or to support me if I raise difficulties. I do not think he is as bad as I feel but I had total trust in previous tutor, who had taught this course for too many years, and her ability to get us through and support us in getting assignments through. It was her and me united against the examining body whereas now I feel on my own. That doesn’t help solve the issue or help me make my way through it but it helps explain why it feels so much worse this year.

I was looking at an interesting piece of research on bullying and PTSD (and the role of the parental bond) and many of the participants’ comments about their experiences and reactions resonated with me. It also features CROPS, a child self reporting system for trauma. Out of the 25 suggestions ranging from “I daydream” to “I do some thing that I am probably too old for” I experienced almost all of them as a child.

I have flirted with the idea of having complex PTSD before, starting to work through a workbook on the subject. I have finished the book, but not the work. I did briefly talk to my counsellor about a short period with a specialist but that is currently problematic. I am honestly not sure how to proceed with this. Trying to dig it all up at a time of stress when I have got assignments to focus on seems counter-intuitive. If I could guarantee working my way through it in a short space of time then it would be worth taking time away from college for it. Is it optional though, can I get through the rest of the college work without it or do I need to work through to succeed? I don’t know.

I am however reading through Kristin Neff’s book on Self Compassion and thinking I could do with a bucketful of this. Whilst the personal pain I experienced taught me to be compassionate about others it did not teach me to be compassionate about myself. Learning to be kinder to myself helps counteract some of this emotional swirl I am experiencing.

Having put self-compassion in the title I haven’t made much reference to it. This time I asked for an extension on my essay that is not an essay rather than forcing myself to finish it on time. That is self-compassion. Even then I had to remind myself that it isn’t a race and it’s not about falling behind those of my peers who have finished. I can be kind and understanding towards them and their limitations but not to my own.

I am trying to fill some of my head’s empty space with consideration and understanding towards myself as well as acceptance and understanding but I have a nagging list of things to be done that shouts louder.

Here’s the Pressure

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Youngest is back at school. 2son is on the train back to college having a difficult journey. 3son is out somewhere and 1son is back at his dad’s. So situation is back to normal and I really feel a ball of anxiety.

I’ve got a water leak in the kitchen that has been slowly getting worse for three months now. Down to the council to fix but for various reasons they are still arguing about it. Not important but I have to mop up every time I walk into the room and I’m sick of both that and the daily phone calls.

Finance is worrying me. I am going to be OK for the next six months having tightened my financial belt but that means doing less stuff which is fun. Plus a bit more saying no to my children and asking them to pay me back when I buy tickets. I know counselling takes time to build up as a private practice let alone trying to find work within an agency so it’s not as if I’ll be going straight into financial safety once I’m done with the course (at least I’m not saying if).

I’ve got my first essay due in three weeks. Haven’t looked at it since before Christmas and am loath to pick it up and keep putting it off. 3son is about to go away for 10 days so will have extra peace at home.

We will start working on second essay when we go back to college next week and I don’t like juggling both simultaneous. That one is then due in March with two more by end of next term.

Then there is the question of whether I can find my way through my client work and actually learn to not fuck up the first few sessions. Which, given that this has been sitting on my mind all Christmas means that is is growing to epic proportions. I had an extra session with my therapist before Christmas and we talked through it which helped enormously. I shall discuss it in solo supervision this week and then see a new client next week and hopefully they won’t run away. I wanted to spend some time after Christmas really thinking about this but I haven’t had the time or space.

I’m also not looking forward to being back at college as I don’t feel willing, ready or open to sharing this difficulty with them which is going to make some aspects of working together difficult and feel false.

My sleep has gone completely to pot. I’m back using sleep stories every night and although I am sleeping fairly deeply I am also waking up 3-4 times a night so am not feeling refreshed at all. I am wondering whether the stress of the course is too much for me to cope with but then I wonder about the lack of alternatives.

I’m onto stable medication for my blood pressure that is so minimal I’m not sure it’s doing anything but am sometimes “hearing” my heart pounding wakes me up in the morning. My GP thinks having slightly higher pressure is OK for the moment. I’m not sure.

So in summary I feel that I’m skating on thin ice and am feeling really incapable of dealing with it. Life seems quite overwhelming at the moment with little to look forward to and no way through that doesn’t involve fighting in a way that I am totally bored with now. Meditation is currently a big struggle too, although I’m not dropping it. I feel as is I’ve gone back three years.

I am however overwhelmingly grateful for my children who are not causing me anguish, and my body which is very slowly changing shape in a good way. Those are the two good things I am hanging onto at the moment.

Intentions

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I never do new year resolutions and am not quite clear about the difference between resolutions and intentions but would consider intentions to be kinder and more forgiving.

Today’s daily calm meditation invited me to look down on myself from very high up and choose something I could let go of. I shed a few gentle tears as I realised the one thing I really need to let go of is my father’s voice telling me that I am not good enough, that anything other than pushing myself to the absolute maximum and beyond is inadequate. That is the only thing that matters for now.

So my intentions for the year are:-

  • let go of inadequacy
  • become competent at starting off with new clients
  • finish the sodding course
  • carry on my Pilates
  • focus more on meditation
  • self-compassion

That is more than sufficient.

The Walls Need to Come Down

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I have reached a crunch point in my counselling placements. Whilst I have two clients who are both past their sixth session I have lost at least three in the first few sessions because they didn’t feel that I was “contactable”. In other words I am feeling extremely anxious because it’s a first session with a new client (I’m not good at meeting new people outside the counselling room either) and when I feel anxious I put the barriers up, and that makes me unreachable.

The clients I have kept are under 40 and the ones I have lost are over 40. Maybe I find the younger ones easier to reach because I’m not transferring my father onto them.

I suspect it all comes down to fear of not being good enough, of anything less than perfection being inadequate, of my saying less through fear of saying the wrong thing. I then say nothing, or say it badly or just trip over my tongue. I worry about interrupting a flow preferring to wait for a pause that never comes. I worry about how the client is receiving me to the point that she’s not because my defences are up.

More than simply relaxing I need to tear down my walls, to make myself vulnerable. I cannot sit back and wait for the client to come to me; I have to reach out to them emotionally. It’s not that I don’t care or aren’t empathic but that I don’t feel confident or even safe enough with a new client to let my emotions show.

To a certain extent this is where I have reached in my own personal therapy. I have inch by inch over the last few years become more confident, more open and more capable of dealing with the ups and downs of life. I know where my comfort zone ends and push beyond it more. I look after myself better than I used to.

But, and it’s a huge but, at my core, deep inside I am a very vulnerable small person who is scared of being challenged and failing to respond appropriately. I am scared of being judged and found wanting. And all I can see as I write this is my father’s face hovering in front of me telling me that I am failing yet again.

All this fear and anxiety is a barrier to my growth. It’s a barrier to my personal growth and now it’s proving a barrier to my professional growth as a counsellor. I’m feeling as if that slow inching forward needs to turn into a gallop that resolves itself before I get another new client. I’m also aware that these clients are coming in a vulnerable position in need of support that I am failing to give them. I’m not filling the basic core condition that the client must feel that empathy and unconditional positive regard coming from me.

I don’t know how to resolve this. I don’t know how to resolve this at a gallop. I am wondering if the sensible thing is to defer for a year so that I can have a bit more time to work through this but I also know that will feel like a failure and hit me emotionally and also be harder financially. I don’t even want to have to explain to people why I’m taking another year.

There are some practical issues as well. We learn how to be a person-centred counsellor in a purist way, learning with our peers who behave well when they act as clients. The difference between that and real world clients who are much more vulnerable and much more scared and willing to run away from it all is huge. I do not think we spent enough time covering this initial first few sessions and the vulnerability of them. I haven’t yet found my words, my ways of explaining how it all work to the level necessary in those first few sessions, of explaining just enough to keep them going without scaring them off. This I can better prepare for.

I don’t know whether my peers are experiencing or have experienced similar issues They tend to talk about clients they’ve had for longer rather than the ones they’ve lost early on. I do feel that I have fallen behind those who have completed their first 100 client hours and who seem to act with much greater confidence, a confidence which is totally understandable. I do not feel like sharing where I am with this process and opening myself up.

Looking at the worst case scenario rather than hiding from it, I don’t become a counsellor, whether I finish the course or not. I have to find a different way forward in my life and start a serious job hunt for something else that allows me to care for people but without making me so vulnerable. If it required more training there would be additional financial difficulties which would sap my strength but I would find a way. Starting again would set me back and I would have to learn to see these past few years as a journey of self-discovery rather than a failure to reach a target. And yes, I would have to get over the shame.

Body Shame

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Doing Pilates on the beach
The Balanced Life, with Robin Long

I am slowly this year coming to terms with a new and improved attitude to my body. And I haven’t got used to it.

Understanding where body shame came from is harder, and this is the first time I’ve admitted to it as shame.

I do not remember feeling bad about my body, as a child, teenager or even young adult. I put on weight with pregnancies and took it off afterwards. I lost two stone when I got divorced. I accepted the ups and downs of weight as part and parcel of being pregnant. I had done Weight Watchers before my fourth pregnancy and achieved gold. I made it to a size 10 and found clothes to buy in the sale.

After I became single, and in a sense my whole life didn’t start until that point I started putting on weight and this time WW didn’t work. I was following their rules and doing 20km a day on a cross trainer and still putting on weight. That was when I gave up on WW, deciding there must be more to weight than this and started exploring intuitive eating and a slow journey to self care which carries on to this day.

I have spent a few years looking for exercise, for a fitness regime that suits me and makes sense to me. I have tried going to exercise classes which I enjoyed but they took up too much time and such a palaver of getting there and back and changing. The same applies to swimming: I love swimming but hate changing rooms. So I looked to home fitness and tried Wii fit, dance mats etc. all of which were fun but not quite right.

Then this year I came across (no idea from where) The Balanced Life, an online Pilates instructor who records her classes on the beach and has a hugely positive bedside manner which encourages me to try rather than criticise me for not doing it perfectly. I started in March doing a free challenge of 10 minutes a day for a month. It took me three months to complete it, after which I went back and did it in a month. Then I signed up and other than a lack of routine over the summer am currently quite faithful, even enjoying those routines that are 30-40 minutes.

What has made the difference and enabled me to commit?

Pilates gets results very quickly. Even with ten minutes I noticed a stronger body and a greater ability to maintain control. Because it’s not about pushing myself to go further or to do more reps it’s encouraged me to listen to my body more and be more aware of what my body is doing and how it is handling the movement. Plus I can feel a physical difference if I run my hands over my self. My waist is tighter as are my hips and bum. So I get positive feedback which encourages me to do it even when I’m not in the mood as I know once I’ve started I will feel better and energised it. I finish it off with my daily calm meditation.

That, in a sense, is all a preamble, explaining where I am now to go back to where I came from.

My first memories of my mother physically is her being young and joyful in sundresses that she spent one year adding length to in order to be more respectable, saying they were no longer decent now she was older. She used to wear backless sundresses on holiday and other similar minimal clothing and these slowly disappeared as she got older and fatter. So did the joy and exuberance. She hated being fat and whilst my father would encourage her to lose weight he also said she was always perfect and he wouldn’t accommodate any change in diet to support her. So she tried and failed every single diet going and I tried to support her, seeing her really struggle with wanting to lose weight and loving cheese and other good food.

My father was always thin and occasionally very thin. If he was busy he would go the whole day without food and it not affect him. I used to think that was useful and eventually I realised that he just shut out sensations of hunger when they were inconvenient. He never put on weight himself so never had to address it as an issue personally.

However, body is more than weight and size. My father had a commitment to long distance walking and rock climbing from his youth and the walking was the physical activity we all had to participate in. Rock climbing was too dangerous and un-ladylike. Walking was never optional. My mother took me to the swimming pool until I was old enough to go on my own but there was never any encouragement or support for other activities, like playing team sports outside of school or any other physical exercise. I do remember a brief dalliance with ballet when I was 12. But I was mostly never allowed to try stuff out or exercise free will.

This extended to being ill. It wasn’t allowed and I often got sent home from school, especially when older, for being too ill with staff asking why on earth my parents sent me in when I wasn’t capable. Illness was something to be ignored, pushed through and dismissed. In a sense I think my father saw it as a sign of mental weakness that shouldn’t be tolerated. When he had an operation on his lungs for cancer in his 70s he refused to listen to surgeon’s expected recovery times and proved himself better by being more active earlier, to the point that he burst his internal stitches and had to have another operation. This is how much illness and disease feature in his head.

At a recent family gathering my sister asked my father whether he was wearing his hearing aid, recently acquired after his gradual deafness in one ear. He told her to mind her own bloody business, which constitute strong words for him. He is in his 80s and his body is slowly failing. He cannot accept the help that a hearing aid would provide because it attests to his fragility and he is ashamed.

This short exchange made me realise that he was (and is) ashamed that he cannot fully control his body, that it does things without his permission and that shouldn’t be allowed. He should somehow be able to dictate strength by force of will.

I once as a child fainted at the dentist. He’d done whatever he was doing and I stood up out of dental chair. As he and my mother were talking I remember thinking that I felt weird and was going to faint but I couldn’t do that as it would be inappropriate. I was trying to work out how to explain that I needed to sit down, even though it would be rude to make a grown up stand up for me, when I just collapsed on them and I remember their looks of horror and surprise as I did. I was trying to dictate strength because weakness was for wusses.

This piece would also not be complete without mentioning my bike crash on the way to school which resulted in seven stitches and almost losing an eye. I lost consciousness and woke up in the back of my parents’ car as they drove me to hospital hearing my mother saying “oh no, she’s being sick again” in a manner that made me feel a failure for making a mess of the inside of the car and the cleaning that she would have to do.

I have suffered multiple years of ortho-dentistry and being strong and unflinching when faced with pain. I used to consider retaining my teeth as long as possible to be my main aim with dentistry and it was not until my 40s that I said I wanted the pain to stop.

I have developed huge resilience, both physical and mental over the decades. After four pregnancies and an unsurprisingly weakened lower back it still took me many years and pain for me to start physio for my lower back which was probably the first act of physical self-care for me. Pilates under this particular instructor allow me for the first time to really explore my body, listen to its abilities and feel it working; to treat it with respect for what it can do and acknowledge what it can’t whilst gently working to minimise the difference between the two. Pilates is becoming an act of self-love and self-care.