Finding a Still, Calm Centre
This morning as I munched my homemade nut and oat granola (!) I listened to the news. This was liberally peppered with phrases like ‘escalation, possibly involving nuclear weapons’, ‘the regime is clamping down on protests from these young women with extreme brutality’ and ‘our entire financial system is under severe strain and may collapse’.
Don’t worry, I am not going to start ranting about Putin, the Taliban or Kwarteng’s mini-budget. I am just observing that there is a background thrum of worry and anxiety at the moment both internationally and nationally which is very hard to ignore.
We are also emerging from a tough two years, reeling from the shock of a pandemic which killed an estimated 6.65m people worldwide, and, as a nation, we have just lost the Queen, a much loved and revered symbol of stability and continuity, whose state funeral may have acted for many as a proxy for all those threadbare funerals for loved ones lost to Covid 19.
All of which is the backdrop to last Monday’s World Mental Health Day which is designed to raise awareness about mental health issues and mobilise efforts to support it.
So, this week that’s what I thought I would do. Not because I believe that I have some extraordinary super power to effect improvements in mental health worldwide; but at the very least I can raise awareness and maybe offer some thoughts about bolstering your own mental health (‘stop listening to the news’, I hear you mutter, but maybe we need a few more strategies than putting our fingers in our ears whilst loudly singing ‘la,la,la,la,la’). I also think that we are an interesting generation when it comes to attitudes towards mental health. We firmly straddle two schools of thought. From our parents’ generation we inherited a belief that poor mental health was a failure of grit. Their watchwords were stoicism, denial, the stiff upper lip, pulling yourself together, and deference for the medical profession which condoned (or at least turned a blind eye to) locking mentally unstable people up in institutions and throwing away the key.
Fortunately for us, we have lived through huge advances in understanding of what constitutes mental health in the first place, and those things which are likely to undermine or destroy it. We no longer expect soldiers returning from war to repress their feelings about the horrors that they witnessed as our fathers had to do. We now accept that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a thing which can be helped so that the sufferer can have a life worth living. If you doubt this, I beg you to watch journalist Fergal Keane’s documentary on the BBC about his own PTSD caused by witnessing at first hand the killing fields of children in the Rwandan genocide. Seeing such horrors led to alcoholism and alienation from his family until a brilliant psychologist at the Maudsley Hospital gave him the tools to deal with his distress and to recover some level of mental equilibrium.
Image from BBC. Fergal Keane's Documentary 'Living with PTSD'. See here
My first experience of not coping happened at the age of thirty. I had just given birth to my second baby and my husband had also just been promoted to a job which meant that he was away from home for longish periods. I had friends but no close family nearby to notice that I was suffering from postnatal depression. I recently read one of those articles that gives a list of the signs of PND and I would have ticked every box, including thoughts of suicide and (I can hardly believe I am admitting this) thoughts of harming the baby, who, like me, cried day and night for nearly nine months. Did I ask for help? Of course not. I was still attached to the way my parents thought about such things, and was ashamed of my weakness. I thought of myself as ‘hopeless’ and ‘pathetic’. One kind health visitor did try to break through the carapace of my denial, but I rebuffed her gentle enquiry with “I’m absolutely fine.” I did get better eventually. After about nine months Suzy settled down, as did my postnatal hormones and the depression, with its attendant dark thoughts, gradually lifted.
Fortunately that experience taught me that mental ill-health is as real as being physically ill. I realised that we don’t expect people to ‘soldier on’ whilst walking on an untreated broken leg, and that there is help out there if you accept that you need it. Second time around I knew better than to ‘soldier’ on. This was in the early 90s. First my mother died. At that time I was trying to live and work part of the time in Sweden and part of the time in the UK, but we had sold our UK family home, so I felt completely adrift. My faltering marriage finally fell apart as did another significant relationship some three years later. Superficially I was coping just fine. I had a successful business, I had bought myself a house in the UK and on the outside everything looked tickety-boo. But inside I was a mess of unexpressed grief, rage and profound misery. So I went to Dublin to be healed.
A friend had told me about a four day course called ‘Turning Point’ led by a very skilled psychotherapist called Graham Brown. It all sounded a bit ‘new age’ and ‘woo-woo’ but I liked the idea that I’d know no-one and no-one would know me because deep down I still felt shame at admitting just how badly I was coping. That course saved my life and my sanity, and I can honestly say that if I am happy and mentally healthy now, then it dates from that weekend. What did we do? Lots and lots of talking, crying, some meditating, but, above all, we were encouraged to be totally open and honest with everyone in the room. It was all done in an atmosphere of kindness and support. There was no judgement, just acceptance, understanding and love. It taught me that I was not alone and that everyone, no matter who they are or how apparently successful, will benefit from help at certain times in their life to deal with their demons. And another huge bonus from that weekend in October 1994 was meeting someone whom I now count as one of my closest and dearest friends.
Since then I have learnt that for me good mental health is about having the necessary resilience to live positively and well. It’s not to be confused with stoicism or that fabled British quality of a ‘stiff upper lip’. Resilience develops from a secure base of love and support and a network of people who have your best interests at heart. Self-awareness and self-knowledge also builds resilience because you know when to ask for help and you feel no shame in admitting that you’re not coping. Obviously I am not talking about mental disability or mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, endogenous depression or any form of dementia. I’m talking about being able to tap into both internal and external resources which help you to cope better whenever you hit a major bump in the road.
The WHO defines mental health as ‘a state of wellbeing in which the individual realises his or her abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.’ The past two years of pandemic and the current cost of living crisis have heightened a sense of fear and anxiety for many people. When everything feels as if it is spiralling out of control, it’s often hard to find that ‘still, calm centre’ that is so necessary to restore a sense of equilibrium. I do hope that, like me, you have grown in understanding of what you need in order to stay mentally healthy and please remember that reaching out and seeking help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.
Friday 28th October
Monday 3rd October
Film Club: Le Week-End
Available on Amazon Prime and Curzon Home Cinema
Watch the film before the event and then join us for a discussion!
Day: Friday 28th October
Meeting ID (if needed): 861 0928 8705
Password (if needed): LOOKFAB
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