Things I learned on a spreadsheet

A poem inspired by the (not very nice) task of writing a spreadsheet to help me with my NHS occupational health form

11 lines on a spreadsheet

Stark black font in backlit cells

The statistics tell me it’s been roughly every two years

Since 1994

But they cannot tell me

How many more months?

Almost 52 so far

But who’s counting anyway?

 

Zen and the art of losing it

I guess there was a certain inevitability.  Mindfulness as a parent is hard work, it’s discipline, it’s continual practice.

It all started with the trees.  I tend to drive in some kind of reverie – caught up in lists, planning, evaluating, daydreaming.  In the spirit of everyday mindfulness I kept trying to bring myself back to the present, to notice the different shapes and shades of the trees along the journey.  Trying, trying, trying.  It wasn’t gentle and it certainly wasn’t very peaceful.  I found myself increasingly frustrated with my flighty mind and its insistence on fleeing back to the future or the past.

As best you can.  It’s a mantra often repeated during mindfulness-based therapy and I see it written down a lot in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books.  Cultivating a compassionate mind towards myself, can I accept that in each passing moment I will bring my attention to the present as best I can?

Moment by moment parenting.  Now there’s a challenge.  In the ‘spaces’ before and after school there is time pressure, competing demands, a structure and a schedule needed. Little One has a completely different schedule to mine. It consists of “play babies until it’s time to leave for school”.  Breakfast, getting dressed, phonics – mere distractions, taking mummy away from the important business of pretend play.  In contrast my mind is ticking over – lists, lists, what next, what time is it, has Eldest done her homework, how can I give her some time and attention before she skips out of the door to meet her friends?

I held it together before and after school yesterday.  I made a conscious decision to set aside time to be absorbed alongside Little One in ‘baby world’.  It wasn’t very long, perhaps ten minutes in the morning and half an hour after school, but still trying, trying, trying to be present and not planning the dinner or the work e-mail or the blog post.

I’m going to be honest, I felt proud of myself but also depleted.  It takes energy and commitment to shut out the world and play.  I think it takes practice too, and wisdom.  For me, the sensory world of playdough is better at the end of the day than the demands of the imaginary ‘baby world’.  Little One has learning difficulties, and so she likes quite routinized scenarios for playing babies yet often flits from one topic to another.  One minute we’ll be feeding baby in the high chair and I’m taking on the role of granny, the next minute Little One is ‘Jan Vann’ the paramedic rushing the baby to hospital.  It can be at the same moment boring, repetitive and difficult to keep up.

The rupture

Things reached boiling point after dinner.  You know those moments where it all feels perfect and delicious and then you’re suddenly plunged into a power struggle?  Eldest and Little One were sharing a bath, which doesn’t happen very often nowadays.  I was just looking at their beautiful bodies, enjoying their sisterly love and simply feeling grateful for them.  Time for a hair wash.  Trying to imagine my best mindful parent I gave Little One the choice, “shall we wet your hair with the pot or the shower?”  She chose the pot.  Wriggled away, climbed over her sister, resisted the water at all costs.  Patience, patience.  “This isn’t working love, I’m going to use the shower OK?  Put a cloth over your eyes and tip your head up”.

More wriggling, arching her back, standing up, turning around.  Absolutely no looking up or sitting still. Lather up, with help from Eldest.  “It’s time to sit really still now OK?  We need to wash the bubbles out of your hair”.  Climb over sister, arch back, wriggle away, stand up, repeat.  After imploring her three times to sit down with a cloth on her eyes I just lost it, spraying water directly above her head and down her face.  Shampoo in her eyes, stinging, shock and crying.  I felt so guilty and drained.  Too late after the event I tried to ask her why she didn’t sit still for the shower.

Children need to experience this, too, namely that their parents are human, that at times we can be insensitive, misattuned, even unempathic – that we can get upset and angry.  Much can be learned from such moments of stress and disconnection, and from the important process of repair and recovery… the strength of the parent-child relationship… is based as much on this tumultuous process of rupture followed by repair as it is in feelings of closeness and safety

Everyday Blessings, p.73

The repair

Little One dried her own hair with the hairdryer.  I gently toweled her body and told her I was sorry.  She said she didn’t like the shower, so I asked her if she would like to play with it a bit while brushing her teeth, to get the feel of the water.  We shared a story, a song, a goodnight kiss, an “I love you”.

As best you can.  It’s all we can ask of ourselves.

Mushrooms, mindfulness and multitasking

I took down my copy of Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef from the shelf this evening. When it was printed back in 1999, Jamie was a fresh-faced TV chef fond of sliding down the banisters of his trendy London flat and zooming around on his moped.  I was a newlywed girl with a kitchen full of beautiful new stainless steel cooking equipment and Denby crockery carefully unpacked from our wedding gift boxes.  Nothing gave me greater pleasure in those days (and still does) than leafing through my recipe books and planning something delicious to cook for my husband.

I wanted to make risotto today.  The cold air has returned and a bowl of something rich, warming and simple seemed fitting.  I chose mushrooms, thyme, parsley and garlic to flavour the creamy arborio rice.

The real secret of a good risotto, I’m afraid, is that you have to stand over it and give it your loving and undivided attention for about 17 minutes, but it’s worth it. (The Naked Chef p.170)

Undivided attention.  I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently as I read about mindfulness practice and mindful parenting.  I’m part way through Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn’s Everyday Blessings and am finding myself really challenged to give my full attention to my daughters in our everyday moments together.

Back to the risotto – how did I get on with the ‘loving and undivided attention’ it needed? The recipe calls on the cook to add the stock ladle by ladle over 17-20 minutes. Each time a ladleful is added, you stir smoothly and continuously until the stock is absorbed. Over time this gently and slowly swells the rice giving the risotto its creamy texture.  Here is what actually happened after each addition of stock…  I clearly still have some way to go in practising everyday mindfulness!

Ladle 1 – stir, clear up the vegetable peelings, realise the food waste bin has a gross blob of Weetabix inside the lid, take off the lid and wash it, tie up the food bin bag (in between nipping to and from the hob to stir)

Ladle 2 – stir, turn the heat down, kiss husband hello, look at Little One’s picture, ask Eldest to put some TV on for Little One and please set the table

Ladle 3 – stir, shove cardboard for recycling into the cupboard, stir for a little while and enjoy the waft of white wine and celery rising from the pan, congratulate myself on a moment of mindful attention (!)

Ladle 4 – stir, think about this blog (!) and make a mental list for the grocery shop tomorrow

Ladle 5 – stir, wipe the table and kitchen surfaces, look at Little One’s house-point certificate from school

Ladle 6 – stir, chop parsley in a cup with scissors, taste the rice to see if it’s cooked, wish that I was better at just staying still and paying attention to the risotto

Ladle 7 – stir, think about what I’m going to cook for the rest of the week, grate cheese and put it on the table, shout the family to tell them dinner’s ready

Although in many ways this is a funny example, it really got me thinking about how my modus operandi is multitasking.  I have this idea brewing…  What about using a 17-minute ‘risotto space’ to practise just stopping for a while to give what I’m doing my full and undivided attention?  Little One loves to play ‘babies’ – but we often need to set a timer to help her understand when the game has finished and mummy needs to do the next thing. Why not set a timer for 17 minutes and be fully present, holding a baby doll and changing its clothes, watching my Little One smile up at me, listening to her little names for the dolls, being grateful that she loves to nurture?  Could I manage a 17-minute cup of peppermint tea with no smartphone, no agenda? How about 17 minutes to sit down with Eldest and hear about her day, or look through our baking recipes together?

I do want to make a risotto without multitasking.  I want to create and enjoy moments where I am fully present with my girls and my husband.  Life means that there won’t always be 17 minutes of uninterrupted bliss, but maybe there will be 17 minutes to live just that bit slower and more purposefully.

Dreams resurrected

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4:18

Yesterday I signed a form to become an employee of the NHS for the first time in 19 years. At the age of 23, my dreams were in tatters as I quit my job as a Speech & Language Therapist.  My mental health had deteriorated so badly that I had been off sick for two months and I knew I couldn’t go back.  I had only lasted nine months after qualification. All that work for my degree, all the striving towards the four A grades at A-level to get into Newcastle University – it felt utterly wasted.

During my time off sick, I took a retreat to Parcevall Hall in the Yorkshire Dales.  It was early Spring and the gentleness of nature soothed my soul.  I vented to God – this didn’t make sense.  What on earth was I going to do with my future?  I have the carefully scripted pages of my retreat journal in front of me today. It’s a plain red exercise book with lined pages faded to yellow, but it is one of my most treasured possessions.  During the retreat I kept coming back to the book With Open Hands by Henri Nouwen.  I began to realise that letting go of my career was an important step.  It was going to require radical trust.  I believe God spoke during that retreat and here is what I heard:

Allow me to meet your needs

Love, security, value, purpose, worth, significance, dependence

Nothing else will satisfy your longings – allow me, precious one

Allow me, dear child

snowdrop

As I drove away from the interview yesterday having been offered my bank post as a Peer Trainer, it felt like my dream of working to support people in their recovery is slowly coming back to life.  Like a snowdrop emerging from its dormancy, heralding the hope of Spring.

I didn’t know at 23 that I would go on to struggle with my mental health for another twenty years (and will probably continue to struggle).  I didn’t know that my dream of motherhood would be tested to its absolute limits through the haze of psychosis and the dark, relentless agony of depression.  I still don’t understand this path, but I know there is the capacity for immense beauty in it.  My daughters are pure joy in human form!  My husband has been utterly faithful to his vow to love me “in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health”.

I feel like I am allowed to dream again.  I am still learning to be dependent on God, but I get this feeling that he is smiling too at the beauty of a snowdrop.

A short script: The Mindfulness Meditation

Toast: Hello body, where can I feel my breath? Nostrils? Belly?

Critic: I’m sure by now you should have decided which one to focus on. You’re just playing music in your head, honestly how hard can it be to focus on your breath?

Toast: Ok try again, in… out… in… out…

Mouse: I’m not sure you should be using words… Let’s try silently

Radio: “la la la doo doo monsters all up in my head, doo bee boo dee”

Toast: Shut up radio

Critic: Seriously? Thinking and music? You’re supposed to be quietening your mind and it’s just getting noisier

Mama: Shhh darling it’s OK. The mind will wander off 100 times, just gently escort it back to the breath

Toast: Hello body. How are you? I think I’ll choose the belly today. Rise and fall, rise and fall… Rise… and fall…

Mama: You’re doing great

Mouse: I’m sure this is supposed to be making us feel peaceful. Do you feel peaceful yet? Try and remember how your therapist talked you through it, I’m not sure we’re doing it right.

Toast: Goodnight Mouse, try and get some sleep. Goodnight body…

Mama: Sleep well honey. I’ll see you in the morning.

Pacing

VERB

  • 1  Walk at a steady speed, especially without a particular destination and as an expression of anxiety or annoyance:

    ‘we paced up and down in exasperation’
    ‘she had been pacing the room’
  •  2  Move or develop (something) at a particular rate or speed:
‘our fast-paced daily lives’

2.1 Lead (another runner in a race) in order to establish a competitive speed:

‘McKenna paced us for four miles’

2.2 pace oneself Do something at a slow and steady rate in order to avoid overexertion:

‘Frank was pacing himself for the long night ahead’

Origin

Middle English: from Old French pas, from Latin passus stretch (of the leg), from pandere to stretch.

Oxford Living Dictionary

Way back in 2006 when Eldest was a baby, my care coordinator’s favourite phrase was “you need to pace yourself”.  I found this intensely frustrating as the mother of a beautiful tiny human who needed me to shake off this depression and ‘get back with the program’.  I wanted to play and bond with her;  I wanted to have a tidy home; I wanted to take her out to baby groups and meet other mums.  But I was so afraid.  I was paralysed by the list of things I needed to do to feel like I was back in control of my life and functioning as I should as a new mother.

I mentally paced the floor, worrying about how my poor mental health was going to have a disastrous impact on her development.  I wept and wept at the psychologist’s office.  All I could say was “I’m so sorry”.

Fast forward to 2016 and I’m in my psychotherapist’s sitting room, looking out over the garden.  I’m using photographs to talk about Little One.  I’m in her trusting gaze, transported right back to the moment that I lay with her on the floor as she clutched her brightly coloured mermaid toy.  All I can say is “I’m so sorry darling”.

Now I’m really learning the hard lessons of pacing myself.  I’m regularly fine-tuning that delicate balance between motherhood and occupation.  I am learning to lay things down, to journal about my future aspirations but to caution myself not to run before I can walk.  I’m learning to be aware of the clamour of thoughts and ideas within me and to spend time over a cup of tea without multi-tasking.  My race pacers come in many forms, from the CPN to the employment support worker; from friends to mindfulness posts on Facebook.  I am learning not to feel so guilty, and to say “I’m so sorry” to myself when I push life too hard.  This is the work of Recovery.

On Dignitas and New Shoes

A poem inspired by the film Me Before You

Alpine light filters through a gauzy curtain

A final pressing of lips to lips

Breath to breath

Our teardrops salty mingle

A sip of water

Seductive in its simplicity

But in truth the agony becomes yours

Instead of mine

It’s not as simple as new shoes

But I’ll walk in them today

By your side

Heels click-clacking

Arches aching hot

Beauty and pain like it’s always been

I won’t leave.

Death: is it your right to choose?

January sings the blues

This is a song for anyone with a broken heart
This is a song for anyone who can’t get out of bed
Or do anything to be happy
Oh, ’cause blue skies are coming
But I know that it’s hard

Noah and the Whale

Last January I wondered if I would ever feel able to get out of bed and face the real world. This January possibility lies ahead of me.  Blue skies did return.  I have so many ideas and things to enjoy that I can easily fill life until it’s bursting at the seams.  In the stillness I find myself aware though that the time may come again when it feels like I can’t do anything to be happy.

Music and song lyrics often rise up to speak to me about my recovery.  I have this idea for a Spotify playlist that I can create now with a relapse in mind.  Songs about how it’s worth it to hold on, about the tenacity of love, about loss.  Here’s one of my current favourites –

Life can weigh you down like a stone.
It can bend you, break you,
Leave you skin and bones.
It’s a long winding road,
You don’t have to walk it alone.

Baby, hold on to me,
Tighter than your sweetest memory, of you and me.
When you’re looking for an open door,
But it seems so out of reach.
Baby, hold on to me, on to me.

Connie Britton, Nashville Cast

I’d love to hear fellow travellers’ songs for the journey, post them in the comments below and I’ll let you know how my playlist goes.