Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Life is precious, so please hang on!

Sometimes I question why I want to write for this blog, or want to join the effort to spread hope. I question what I possibly have to offer. How can I convince someone to hang on?

When I was a medical student I accompanied two doctors and a nurse as they went to tell a young man that his cancer had returned, and that it was pretty bad. We were all squashed in a tiny room. His little kid crawled on his lap while another toddled around. The room was too hot. He didn't say very much, but he didn't have to. He had just been given a death sentence.

There's something about the fragility of life that evaded me for many years. I didn't respect the fact that I was alive. At all. When I was sick with a mental illness that has the highest mortality rate, I couldn't connect to it. My life seemed irrelevant. I had no fight in me. Dying seemed almost a welcome reprieve.

There's very little a person can do when they have cancer, beyond taking their medicine, having surgery and praying things will be ok. And that's the frustrating thing about physical illness.

But mental distress is just as frustrating. The power often lies with the person. Getting well can rarely be done alone, and yet the work that needs to be done must be carried out by the person themselves. I wanted to just show up and have someone 'fix me', and when I realised that wasn't going to happen, it was pretty devastating. The only way was through. And I didn't want to go through. 

But now as I find myself close to the other side of mental illness, I realise that life is incredibly valuable. It's a gift. I now understand that it wasn't that I wanted to die, I just didn't want to live life as I had been. Who would? Living with emotional distress is akin to living with cancer. A darkness grows inside and starts to rot you from the inside out. But although the work had to come from within, I am so glad I did it. I'm so proud I stuck with the process of recovery and didn't throw the towel in.

A while ago I was called in the middle of the night because a patient had died. It wasn't the first time, nor would it be the last. I stood behind the nurse's station reading the medical notes and trying not to burst out crying as each family member respectfully nodded at me. The last goodbyes were over, and the reality had started to sink in for the loved ones. I suppose it's times like these I look back with gratitude, as I was deeply moved. One of the nurses was trying to locate chairs for the elderly relatives with tears streaming down her face and I just couldn't shake the thought that life is fragile.

We get raw deals in life. And being gifted a mental illness or emotional distress is a raw deal. But we make of it what we can. The main thing I want to say is that life is precious. And it's only when you get through the pain will you realise this. So please don't give up. You have not been given a death sentence, and you can 100% learn to be free of distress. You can. You have been granted the gift of a second chance; a way out. You just need to put one foot in front of the other and slowly walk through it. Do the self care thing you have been avoiding. Rub the dog. Go for a walk in the park. And if all that seems too much, simply hang on. That's it. Don't make any rash decisions.

Don't throw the towel in, just hang on. 

Monday, 11 May 2015

Needs Must.

Throughout our day to day conversations, we regularly punctuate our dialogue with our various expressions of need. How often do we find ourselves saying things like – ‘I need a drink/smoke/snack/nap? Maybe we feel like we need a new job, a change, a holiday or at the very least a 7-day weekend?! Our minds can wander off chasing countless ‘needs’, a mélange of tempting possibilities that we feel will enhance our lives. Occasionally this chase actually just leads us away from what’s truly necessary. We’re numb to what we really require and lose ourselves in the search for perceived fulfilment.

The definitive line between needs and wants is easily blurred so how can we figure out a way to genuinely satisfy our needs? I did a little looking into it and then got a little passionate about it and here’s what I’ve found.

Maslow had an interesting approach to our needs as a means of achieving self-actualisation. Within his hierarchy of needs he ticked off the basics and encouraged our progress from there. Starting from the bottom moving upwards he advised to address our needs like this – physiologically, safety, love and belongingness, esteem and finally reaching self-actualisation. Later, cognitive and aesthetic were thrown in for good measure, along with transcendence to help spread the self-actualised bliss.

That probably all sounds a bit wordy. So if we want to take Maslow up on his approach, we’re going to have to translate it into application.

Physiological basically asks - What does your body need? Now and then, it can be easy to think our mind knows better than our body.  Depending on the latest diet, drug or drinks promotion, we are essentially telling our body to shut up while we source what we think will benefit us.

What actually needs to be done is simple – listen to our bodies. Think of all the processes that go on within the body every single second that do no feat smaller than y’know, keep us alive. I think it’s fair to say that’s it worth tuning in, with the trust that it’s unlikely to steer us wrong. So when it comes to getting the basics sorted; a nice balance of food, drink, air, sex, shelter, sleep and warmth, is where it’s at.

If we meet these biological needs we can look towards our safety needs next. Protection comes in many forms in our lives, but ultimately it’s got to come from ourselves for ourselves. Being our own source of security and maintaining order tends pretty nicely to this need. Then we surround ourselves with those who make us feel safe too.

Then we want to feel like a part of this world. Regardless how independent and self-sufficient we may be (or want to appear), love and belongingness definitely have their part to play. We need people. Straight up, we need affection and we need bonds with other human beings. Cultivating a real relationship with another person is a fantastic thing. Allowing people into our lives can be tricky at first, it might be preferable to avoid intimacy at all costs in case we get hurt. But that means avoiding love too, so we’ve got to toss up which ‘need’ we’re going to attend to.

Esteem is one that can take significant attention to improve. I’m no stranger to low self-esteem, like not even on the scale of esteem it was so low. So I wasn’t nurturing this need, I was neglecting it.  I didn’t respect myself, see my own worth or acknowledge any of my achievements. So it’s no surprise that I found myself fairly stuck. It kept me down, feeling useless and thinking that I needed to just be someone else or find a way out of being me.

What I actually needed was to nourish my esteem. This is a ‘need’ that might be overlooked because it takes time, work and effort. But in its absence, we end up chasing various other irrelevant ‘needs’ – needing to look a certain way, find a way out, try to impress others. Esteem means realising who we are, how valuable we are and blossoming belief in ourselves.

Now then, we could potentially find ourselves edging towards self-actualisation, if we’re taking the original route of the Hierarchy. This is where we have peak experiences, discover and seek out our potential. We can take steps away from settling, from our cushy comfort zones and push ourselves towards the dreams that we now know we can achieve. We find a meaning of life that’s important to us and continually progress towards it.

When we starve ourselves of any of our needs, we deprive ourselves of our potential. Plenty of people dip in and out of meeting their needs and plenty will lose sight of them after reaching a certain point. For me, to put it mildly I know I‘ve slacked on satisfying most or in truth, all of these needs before. I tried to control my body, push people away, put myself at risk and put myself down. I ignored what I needed and the possibility of me having any potential escaped my mind.

Life has so much more meaning and opportunity since I started to nourish my needs. I think for any of us, whether we give a toss about Maslow or not, could benefit from checking in with ourselves a bit more, answering the call of what we need and seeing what we can nurture next. 

None of us need to settle or deny ourselves our potential, we need to take the steps to embrace what our lives are screaming out for.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Are you for real?! - The Importance of Authenticity

Looking around the heart of any city, it’s easy to see that being authentic is something worth bragging about. Be it food, drink or clothing, the vendors know that people want the original; the real deal. There’s something about the word itself that has a homely, wholesome feel, there’s a sense of real, honest value in it.

The word was dancing around in my head and led to me exploring it in terms of people. How authentic are we? Or are we afraid of being authentic? Why are we not boasting our original individuality too? Trawling through shops, we often seek out the originals, the authenticity; because we know it’s likely to be the best version.  Sometimes we just don’t want to settle for the cheap knock off. But when it comes to ourselves, are we choosing to settle?

Growing up, that age old advice consistently given was ‘Be yourself’.

Dr Seuss put it perfectly
‘Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive that is youer than you.’

Personally, I wanted to be just about anyone else I could possibly be, but the idea of being happy to simply be me, always resounded with me as a wonderful way of living. It remained out of my grasp for years though and I got more and more lost. While being sound advice, I think actually being yourself is in practice, a lot more challenging.

We can put on a multitude of masks; shrouding our authentic selves in layers of pretense, falseness and people-pleasing. It’s nearly a battle of either hiding away from the world or putting on an act and being something you’re not. I have done a bit of both and it never worked out. 

Hiding away stops anyone from really getting to know you and I promise, you are worth knowing! Being something you’re not always ends in disaster because people will see through it. And the more you stray away from who you really are and are meant to be, the more those feelings of being lost will envelope you.

Valuing authenticity is the only way you’ll actually ever want to practice it. It’s not going to be automatic and getting the confidence to put yourself out there stirs up a lot of vulnerability and discomfort. But it’s truly worth it.

Firstly, divulging in self discovery is the path to feeling good about being you. Get to know what you believe in, what makes you different. It could be the way you giggle at inappropriate times, or like things perfectly in order, or always make terrible jokes. It could be your family, your experiences, and your past that has shaped the person you are now. Difficulties or triumphs, they all happened for a reason and are yours to learn from, nobody else’s.

Try to shake off the safety blankets that prevent you from being real. Any of the things that aren’t allowing you to shine, simply must go. It might be saying what you think and really putting forward your own opinion instead of feeling the need to go with the general consensus. Or it might be dancing like no one’s watching even if they are, just because the desire to do it is burning in your feet. It could be trying something new even if you’re the only one who wants to do it. It's listening to that part of you that isn't ruled by terms and conditions, your gut instinct that only you can feel.

Tell your stories proudly and share your experiences without editing them all first.
Keep the details real and unfiltered and the edges rough because, imperfection is beautiful.

Express yourself in whatever way makes you feel raw and exposed.

Be the original, 100% authentic you that's truly within.