It’s wet in Scotland today. Very wet. The river outside our house is flowing with force after a relentless 36 hours of rain. Not the best day to be working in the veg patch but first chance in a while and there is plenty of old vegetation to remove, relentless weeds to pull and gazillions of slugs abounding. They seem to thrive in the wet and this morning I found tens of them, ranging in size from a couple of millimetres up to a couple of inches.
None quite as monstrous as this badass from earlier in the year:
My relationship with slugs varies with my mood. They have suffered at my hands and heels when I’ve been wound up and I have abused their bodies as sacrificial targets in darker days. They certainly suffered as I went through a bleak tunnel of grief a couple of years ago. That year my veg was relatively hole-free and my ‘dawn patrol’ slug squishing was an effective way to keep them from rampaging.
Then I began to explore yoga principles, to reflect and shift toward living more aligned with considered values. The yogic concept of ‘ahimsa’ - the idea of living in a non-harming way - presented a challenge and I began to wonder how that could work in a veg patch. We are an almost-vegetarian household and conscious about where and how we source any meat or dairy products we use and yet I was crushing slugs willy-nilly in the name of nicer looking kale.
This year my attitude has been somewhat more laissez faire. I have transported slugs to the compost heap rather than drowning them with the weeds or squishing them. I have been less diligent with weeding, giving them more places to hide and more leverage to get up to the nice juicy leaves. They have gone rampant, the compost heap is obviously a brilliant place for them to breed and a brilliant place for them to work their way back to the veg patch or over to the greenhouse…
Now I’m wondering what I can get out of this. I am accepting the holey veg and treating them kindly and I can see now an opportunity that perhaps I can treat them as training ground for my emotional landscape. Those squidgy, unpleasant, annoying feelings that come up, that chomp away at me – rather than crush them under my heel or find a way to silence them, can I let them be? Can I let them chomp a bit, give them a bit of space and then help them move on?
This morning I was feeling quite premenstrual and a bit grumpy so a couple of slugs got it. But then I softened and spoke kindly to myself, forgave myself for being grumpy and for the killings and extended myself a little kindness. I saw my frustrations as slugs and decided it was ok for them to be there, they didn’t need to rule the roost but they did need to be acknowledged and let go.
The grumpiness lifted and I put the rest of the (many) slugs in the compost pile.
Blog for happiness at work week for WNT reminding me why I set it up in the first place...
This week is international ‘Happiness at Work’ week and it got me thinking about why I started West Norwood Therapies in the first place. To be happier at work!
I always loved my work as a massage therapist and now that I’ve not been practicing for a while I really miss the interaction with clients, working one-to-one with people in that way is a special thing. I loved the practical side of massage, of finding areas that needed attention and working on them to help bring relief and often insights for the client as to what was contributing to discomfort or what could help them in day to day life. There is an element of problem solving and the happy place where science meets art - this is really a blissful state for me when I find that balance. I loved the conversations that arose during that time together and the trust that built up over months and years of working with people. I loved the variety of personalities, of bodies, of challenges and of energy.
I’m using the past tense ‘loved’ as if my massage days are over! When really, as my volcano mad son says, I am just in a dormant phase and am keen to become active again soon.
Despite all of this interaction and variety working with clients, being a massage therapist can be a lonely job. You are always in the therapist role with clients, however friendly the interaction becomes. And unless you seek them out you can lack peer support. I worked in several clinics where I rented the room to see clients and I met other therapists there, but I felt like there was an opportunity for a more cohesive, shared working environment.
And so West Norwood Therapies was born. The idea was that this would be a collaborative collective and we would all contribute to the environment and running of the place and we would have regular meetups to offer one another peer support and become a network and team.
It’s our 7th birthday in October, a fact that makes me very happy indeed! And I feel even happier that the concept of a collaborative collective feels so collaborative and like such a collective now. Our team has evolved over the years and the shrinking of it with the closure of the studio room last year was a trauma that our smaller team has come through and I feel that we are now stronger than ever.
I am happy in my work and I am grateful for the team that makes this possible. Over that long gruelling winter lockdown we had weekly check-ins which were a bit like group therapy, we all opened up and supported one another. This has made us closer and sharing our vulnerabilities has given us a resilience that we couldn’t have achieved without.
Next weekend I’ll be in London for the first time since coming down to clear out the studio last summer. I am excited to see my lovely colleagues and have a meeting together to reflect on the past year and look forward to the next, to share and to plan, to celebrate and to look at what we have learned. I know it will be interesting, helpful, collaborative and fun. I am a lucky ducky to be in this position and I highly recommend opening yourself up to the possibility of strong work relationships and the happiness at work these can bring.
a blog about this time of year when a sense of shift is in the air, of new horizons and how this varies so much according to our personalities and choices
It could have been our son’s first day of school in mid-August when the Scottish schools went back. We celebrated our choice not to enrol him with some ginger ice lollies (new discovery – amazing!) and splurging our monthly home ed budget within a few days on a trip to the Glasgow Science Centre, a day at a local activity park and a horse riding lesson.
For us this feeling is liberating and fuels a zest for a rich and creative life in our family home. It means the summer can go on a bit longer as we chop wood and turn veg into chutney and it means we can graudally build and change routines as fits us and the seasonal shape of our rural life.
Last week a friend was sharing with me his feelings about the new term down in England beginning and to him the return to school felt like a relief. For the shape of their family life school is a welcome and important part of the structure. It is liberating in how it allows parents to work and focus in work after the intensity of working and schooling from home over lockdown.
For me this step out of Summer into Autumn is a time of clearing, reflecting and planning. In the veg patch I am clearing beds of onions and celery, cleaning out pots, planning next years beds and planting winter veg. In my role with WNT I am looking forward to a London visit later this month to get together with the team for a reflection and planning session (as well as a knees up ;-) ) And in my personal life I am looking at my balance of work, home, friends, hobbies and commitments and seeing where I can even things out.
At WNT we have been working through the summer and yet there is s till a strong ‘back to school / work’ feeling that changes our dynamic and patterns come September. We shift gear and move into a more active phase, there’s a bit of freshness in the air and a drive to find momentum after the paradoxically busy and relaxing summer.
It seems that this move into autumn can carry this feeling of a new chapter, fresh horizons more than other seasonal shifts. I wonder how much this is engrained in us from our early childhood and school terms after the long summer and how much is the nature of the season that sees leaves shedding from the trees to leave the fullness of summer behind. We are moving on away from something, we are not yet in the midst of winter, we are not even in the midst of autumn. But we are leaving the summer behind and we are stepping into the next phase of our lives, jobs, schools, families and seasons.
Whatever this season holds for you I wish you well!
a brief blog for WNT about why I am a massage therapist at a time when I was pining to get back to it...
Our team at WNT has been considering the question Why Do We Do What We Do? in honour of International Wellness Week and it’s made me miss working with clients more than ever!
For various reasons I haven’t worked as a massage therapist for 4 years now and I crave the return. I was setting up a treatment space at the start of 2020 but then covid hit and all of us had to hold back with the work we know can help so much, it has been tantalising for all!
Helping people is a huge part of why I want to get back to it. During my time not working I have continued to be a client to various practitioners as well as interactions with medical professionals and I am all the more acutely aware of why what we do is so valuable. The hour that we spend with our clients is precious time, it is an intimate, intricate and opportunistic time where the bond that we develop allows our work to do its magic. Bodywork therapists have knowledge and intuition and skill and if we can hold the space for what needs attention and a good connection happens with the client then these all fuse together to give a powerful result.
One thing I love is how my work as a massage therapist is to combine the science of my training in anatomy, physiology and massage therapy with intuition that comes from an innate sensitivity as well as hours of listening and working with clients. This combination of science and intuition leads to massage being a form of art – I sort of let my hands (and forearms and elbows!) go and find what they need to find. This makes massage a creative outlet for me and one that is in a relationship with someone that I am working with, so it is strongly connecting and rewarding in that way.
Each of us in the team at WNT has our own approach to work – even when our treatments are ostensibly similar we are each unique as practitioners and how we approach our work. It is really a personal thing and, I believe, that that personal aspect is what makes our work so valuable. Connection really does have a powerful impact and I always encourage people to find the practitioner you connect with as this can determine the potency of your treatment and make it all the more enjoyable too.
I wrote this around Maternal Mental Health day to fantasise about what I think might improve mental health for mothers...
I love being a mother. I love having that relationship with my son. I love being around him, I love watching him grow, I love sharing his important moments and hearing him find himself and his passions. I love snuggling him to sleep and being woken by him in the morning (less so at 4am). I love the richness he brings to my life and the ways that relationship pushes me to grow and be a better person.
It is also challenging, in particular the expectations I realise I have of myself around what it means to be a mum and who else I am ‘allowed’ to be at the same time. I find the juggling is difficult and varied and I have had to work to create self care time as I wrote about in a Shame and Self Care blog. I am still working hard to hold onto myself as a broad, multifaceted creature and realise how easy it is to slip back into the assumption that being a ‘good’ mother is synonymous with total self sacrifice. These are my expectations on myself and that I see in mothers around me, which must come from the world and society in which we were raised.
Maternal mental health is important for our children’s mental health and for our society at large. And I believe it is a challenge to all mothers to maintain mental health. We have a constant need to juggle and our brains and bodies are expected to jump in all directions often simultaneously. We are often tired and overstretched and I think our society has a long way to go to accommodate flourishing mental health for us.
I love Caitlin Moran’s insight into how we are forever changed on a chemical level by motherhood:
“No one really talks about the chemical elements of parenting but when you think about it, this is what underpins everything. Humans are essentially bags of chemicals We choose our mate on their smell, their hormones subliminally whispering to us in a neanderthal grunt ‘this man make good baby with you’ then when a woman gets pregnant, what is created in her uterus is essentially a living hormonal implant emitting random amounts of fuck knows what into her system and rewiring her entire body and brain in a massive hormonal pyroclustic blast that she never fully recovers from” (Caitlin Moran in More Than a Woman)
Here are my fantasies of how a shift in our expectations could come about that might better support maternal mental health:
...It was widely understood and accepted by society that pregnant women are going through an immense change that involves so much loss as well as gain. That there is much to be grieved in becoming a mother - a sense of self, alone time, sleep, some friendships, an ability to wholly commit to something else, our bodies as they were, our attitudes as they were - everything as it was!
...we recognised openly that ‘tired and hormonal’ can really mean ‘can barely lift myself off the chair and feel like my brain is exploding’ and realised that those things shouldn’t be ignored just because they are common, that in fact this is womanhood in all its glorious colours, a rainbow to be celebrated and supported.
...our society recognised the value in rest and supporting mothers to get rest that they need from the early weeks of pregnancy through to their children leaving home, that work breaks for naps were a given and it was built into our expectations that we are all healthier and happier when well rested.
…our government understood ’supporting childcare needs’ less as simply making the age for group child care lower and more the benefits to our future society of child care with a much lower adult to child ratio
...we gave more space to the fact that bringing a child into a relationship utterly changes the relationship and can often leave the person who didn’t give birth feeling left out so that couples finding themselves in this difficult place don’t feel bad or wrong and instead know this is their rites of passage to get through.
...we allowed women to work and be a primary carer by helping support the caring part better, that the person paid to look after the child can feasibly be the one who loves them best and that we didn’t feel it was a constant sacrifice between our work passions and our family as to who gets more of our time and energy.
...we celebrated the changes in women’s bodies that come with pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, getting older and the menopause and let go of any expectation or idealisation of ‘back to a pre-pregnancy body’ - what if we could celebrate every stage of women’s bodies....
...it was widely understood that Feminism doesn't mean ignoring biology but restructuring society so that we can accommodate everyone fairly rather than simply ‘letting’ women do more and more things.
...things that strengthen our bodies, minds and spirits like yoga, mediation, therapies and walking were valued to such a degree that we assumed it was part of our every day like eating and washing.
...we understood that you cannot separate the physical from the mental or emotional and that our mental health is always going to be affected by things that affect our bodies, like pregnancy and motherhood.
The optimist in me sees some steps in some of these directions and is hopeful that society is changing, however incrementally. At the heart of any of this change is kindness and compassion - things that we so value in the act of mothering that surely should be so highly valued in how we treat our mothers in society.
The idea of shame as an impediment to self-care has been niggling at me for a while. I know from my own experience how this pattern goes – my shame is triggered and my ability to extend myself the kindness and empathy necessary for self-care is depleted, leading to more shame.
We all have our own shame triggers but there are common themes. Shame and vulnerability expert Brene Brown says “shame drives two main tapes: ‘never good enough’ and ‘who do you think you are’”.
When I talk about ‘self-care’ I am talking about things that nurture our bodies, minds and spirits. The things we love doing, things that make us come alive. Self-care is the things that nourish us. Self-care can be exercise, nutrition and meditation. It can also be music, art, creating something, playing with a pet, talking with a close friend.
For me, the exercise, nutrition and meditation side of things are easier to get to. This is because my personal version of shame means that for me to feel worthy I must be ‘healthy’. But until I spent some time with the shame that was underneath that I wasn’t actually healthy at all. I swallowed all of my insecurity and pain and kept this shame hidden, so while I might seem healthy on the surface to anyone looking on, underneath that was a lot of muckiness. I might eat a healthy meal with friends and eat a chocolate bar in secret later. I might do lots of exercise and yoga and then go out and binge drink and take drugs that night. I might act very happy and positive then be exhausted and depressed from the effort of this later that night. I might encourage a friend to share their pain with me then shut down when I had an opportunity to share mine.
To move past this coping mechanism and the idea that what was on the outside mattered more than what was inside meant me spending time with what those feelings were. I lived in a prison of judgement – judgement that I perceived as coming from the outside, but really it’s all a mirror of how I feel about myself. I discovered that the things I was doing to make me feel good brought up a lot of shame in this very fact that I then felt good about myself. The counter-actions were a form of self-sabotage, to bring me back down to size. I feel haunted by the phrase “who does she think she is” and that made me undermine any positive step I took to look after myself.
We can only really nurture ourselves positively if we nurture those aspects of ourselves that we want to reject. Now I have spent a lot of time in those murky waters and find it easier to let myself feel good, so I don’t need to undermine myself to the same degree. And at least now the awareness is there so if I slip then I can see that pattern for what it is and not be lost to it.
With this freedom I am gradually able to enjoy the things that make me physically healthy without undermining myself – I might choose a morning yoga class to set a peaceful tone for my day or go for a run to wake myself up and then I am (mostly!) able to let myself enjoy the benefits.
And the next layer of freedom I am discovering is that I am now more able to move toward the things that I really want to do but aren’t as immediately ‘justifiable’ in my personal frame of reference. I am spending time creatively, for the joy and fun of it – I still feel guilty about this and about choosing these solitary and ‘aimless’ ways to spend my time and I had to fight myself using the word ‘indulgent’ in this description. I still find it much easier if I can tell people I’ve been busy with work or parenting rather than acknowledge that I came alive mostly during the times when I was on my own, lost in creativity. That shame is still rampant and it is a work in progress for me to free myself from those shackles.
We can’t let go of all of these other things – my family, my work and paying the bills are all vital to me – but maybe we can ease up on the limitations we place on ourselves in honour of these if we can face the idea that perhaps its more than the reality of those getting in the way, that perhaps it’s our relationship with them and our relationship with ourselves that needs some attention first.
Over the past few years I’ve been working on letting go of a competitive streak in myself. This streak has a strong genetic influence and is not entirely unhealthy – it has helped me carve my own path, to meet interesting people and try interesting things, to build a career and business, to keep learning and growing and setting my sights high and far. It has given me ambition and for a long time I was grateful for that.
But I have learned that ‘ambition’ is far from a happy state and indeed is a barrier to wholehearted living and any sort of internal peace and contentedness.
The tool that has helped me shine a light on my relationship to competitiveness is yoga and, in particular, yin yoga. The irony is that it was my competitive streak that held my attention to yin yoga – proof that nothing is ever ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the richness lies in the ambiguity and dualities.
The first yin yoga class I did was called ‘deep tissue stretch’ and it was with Andrea Kwiatkowski on Movement for Modern Life, a blessing in the form of a subscription platform that has improved my life a gazillion fold with excellent teaching and ability to have daily classes for all moods and needs. I liked the sound of this class that would reach into areas ‘like a massage’ and looked forward to the results.
It was tough! I struggled to find ease in many of the poses and the idea of holding them for 2-5 minutes was new to me. Andrea held my attention with her acknowledgement that ‘you might find this quite a frustrating practice’ – so I understood that it wasn’t just me and I stayed with it.
I gradually learned to back off, to ease away from ‘the edge’ as it is referred to in yin and to approach each pose in a softer way. I learned that this allowed the release I needed to go further – that yielding in my striving led to the yielding my body was craving, that easing off my effort allowed me to find much more progress and development in the work I was doing with this practice.
My physical yoga practice, known in yoga as asana and how we often understand ‘yoga’ generally, is my training ground for life and a touchstone that helps me understand who and where I am and what needs to change and how that change can come about in my life off the mat. So these lessons of yin, of lessening the effort, of not pushing so hard or trying to override where you already are, of going with rather than against and of listening acutely and – importantly – staying with what arises became my pillars of life. My benchmark for ‘success’ has become more about how it feels and what comes out of it for my growth rather than any external validation or acceptance.
Of course this doesn’t happen overnight, I am still on this journey of listening and adapting and learning and I see it as a lifelong journey. As is the other side of the coin, the letting go of what others think and the doubt of whether I am ‘good enough’ for my place in the world.
Competitiveness may be a fun and helpful trait for many and in many circumstances. I love watching an exciting game of rugby or 100m sprint and that wouldn’t be the same without the competitive spirit. But when it is part of your life to remove you from the here and now, to validate yourself and to make you push when perhaps pushing isn’t right, then it is not healthy.
At this time of year when we set ourselves targets and insist we must be ‘better’ this year, may we have the self-compassion to approach this with gentle discipline and kind self-talk. My goal is to commit to things that appeal to me, to follow my path and grow every day without force and allow adaptation and change when I meet resistance. Happy new year:-)
Over the past 18 months I have experienced my first major bereavements and been thrown into the world of grief, it’s quite an experience! And, I believe, no two experiences will be quite the same. Relationships differ, ways of death and any ‘preparation’ for it differ, where you are in your own life when you experience it differs.
My story is this: my dad died very suddenly 16 months ago – an ostensibly fit, healthy 64 year old he died out running with his (now our) dog, Jack. My mum had just been diagnosed with breast cancer two months earlier and she declined rapidly to die in February this year. I was in the midst of other big life changes as this was happening – becoming a parent and moving from a London flat to a smallholding down a rural Scottish track, ironically to be closer to my parents and other family, with big changes in our work lives too.
So these are just a few things I have learned through my own particular journey so far. I think it will be a lifelong journey…
1. Grief is isolating – I am not an isolated person: I have family, friends and support around me. I also have people around me grieving the same people too. But I wouldn't say it's something you can really share. It is so personal and something I almost feel protective around. Relationships are unique and your experience of letting go of that person must therefore be unique. This can be extremely painful and make you feel very lonely. Feeling sad can make you want to withdraw, especially when you feel like people just want you to be ok again and you’re just not. It can also be hard for people close to you to understand, it can be hard to support someone with a bubble round them, but I think that bubble is necessary protection for our grief for a bit at least, which means it simply is isolating.
2. Grief is visceral – I heard a psychotherapist say “grief feels like fear” and I totally agree with that. It comes with heightened anxiety and can take over your body, tense your jaw and churn your gut in particular. It is therefore really an embodied feeling, which can mean back pain, stiffness, upset stomach as well as anger and bubbling frustration. Another bereavement specialist told me “you can’t deal with anxiety cognitively” and this was so helpful a reminder that our bodies are our minds and vice versa. The routes out of anxiety for me are the same that are helpful for managing symptoms of grief - Yoga, massage, acupuncture, running, hugging (see Erika’s blog on oxytocin for reasons this helps so much), meditating, talking, sleeping, playing hide and seek with a toddler…
3. Grief is unavoidable – Grief comes with death so is unavoidable for that reason. But I also say this in that grief is something you actually do have to go through when you experience death. Early on a friend told me "No one escapes the full grief experience " and this has chimed with a lot of anecdotal evidence from, for example, interviewees on Griefcast who tried to avoid the experience and it comes back to haunt them later on. But it’s not something you go through then finish! It’s something that you have to create space for in your life, to examine and process and ultimately to learn to live with. Grief changes you and you have to adapt to absorb those changes.
4 Grief is not all bad – if you said this to me on some days I would feel like punching you! I sometimes feel like that is untrue, but in my more rational frame of mind I see it like any injury - if you attend to it, if you go into it and explore it you can learn a lot about yourself and life. If you just numb the pain then it will just hide there and give you greater trouble down the line. Grief is a sign that you have really loved and that is what makes life worthwhile, so if you can bear to let the process happen it can help ground you in your priorities and focus on what really matters.
5. Grief is Really F*&£$ing hard!! – Because it's isolating, because it’s visceral, because it’s unavoidable and even because it’s not all bad (really you’d rather have them back!) – all these things and the adapting to the change the loss brings make grief hard. It is a complex beast, it’s absorbing and intense at times. It is like childbirth and chronic pain, these are things that everyone acknowledges are tough and painful, but until you experience them yourself you won't really ‘get it’.
I wanted to share these experiences as I have found it helpful to hear other experiences, particularly through listening to Griefcast and also through Griefworks. While it is such an individual journey, there are so many common aspects, emotions, tensions and challenges. I have found solidarity, understanding and support through these channels and they’ve helped me make sense of some of the reactions I’ve had, which is invaluable on this confusing, anxious sad and important journey.
I have been writing occasional blogs for my work with West Norwood Therapies for the past few years so have published some here and am in the process of trying to find a regular blog writing habit for my own enjoyment and creativity. I'm not doing very well with it so far as other things seem to take precedence, but the intention is there and I'm sure I'll find the habit when it feels right :-)