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Monthly Archives: June 2013

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We’re great worriers in our family. I mean this: we are real champion worriers. If the thing we are worrying about manages to resolve itself, we can transfer our worry to something new in a fraction of a second. We all have the worrying skill, and just in case any of us become rusty, we are good at reminding each other to worry a bit more.

Of course worrying has been useful. You could say my husband and I have built part of our careers around it: it is partly our attention to detail, our obsessiveness, our refusal to let it rest, that has made us so successful. We are classic middle-managers, endlessly training, supervising, implementing and reporting. Worry is the defining characteristic that keeps us productive year after year in the same line of work.

We like our children to worry, if it is about the right things. “He doesn’t seem to be worrying enough about doing his revision.” we say about Duncan. “If he worried less about his appearance and more about getting to school on time…”

In fact both children are extremely good at worrying. Duncan is worrying himself sick about exams, all by himself, without any help from us. His sister, Julie, of course, is the greatest worrier of us all: she can invent completely imaginary threats to worry about. Her worries can be crippling, cutting her off from the rest of us, and making her harm herself.

The sign of a really good worrier is the ability to have more than worry on the go at once. The classic worrier has a real worry and a displacement worry. I really worry about my children, for example, but I am very good at ostensibly worrying about the bindweed in my garden. I see the same ability in my son: Duncan worried about a mock exam, but after he had sat it and been given an A grade, he started worrying that it had not been hard enough. I realised then that the exams were his displacement worry; the task now for him is to find out what his real worry is.

At home, I am experimenting with something called the worry tree. The gist of this is “If you can’t do something about it, don’t worry about it; if you can do something about it, then do it.”. You follow a short tree of questions to sort your worry into one of a few boxes. It’s like sorting laundry. Can I do something about the bindweed? Yes, I can, so write an action plan. Can I tackle it now? No, it’s raining. Make a note to do it when it’s dry.

So far, just like the laundry, no one else in the family has mastered this.

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I confess I woke up at 5 o’clock this morning worrying about bindweed. It was an awful moment last night when I saw it. All spring and early summer I have waged a quiet war against my bindweed foe, and was confident of winning. But then last night I looked out from an upstairs window and realised for the first time the full horror. The shoots and roots I had been patiently defeating were only the small advance guard; over the fence, high above in the hedgerows, it was amassing armies, leaves spreading to the horizon, their first grappling hooks beginning to descend. I swear someone was playing the soundtrack to the shower scene in The Shining as I looked and took it slowly in. I was outnumbered, outflanked, and doomed.

It had even come up in my mindfulness classes: someone had used gardening, and the gardener worrying about weeds but not enjoying the flowers, as a metaphor for living life in a particular way. I nodded sagely: I will enjoy my garden more, I said to myself, taking it rather literally, I will not worry so much about the weeds. But the practical problem is that a small garden in a rural village, with fertile soil and high rainfall, is under permanent assault: if you pay no attention to weeds, you will soon only have weeds to enjoy. After a few years of necessary neglect for other things, my poor garden is run amuck with weeds, and needs some stern attention.

But even I can see that waking at 5 o’clock in the morning is taking it far too far.

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My wonderful husband, Joe, has bought us tickets for the Royal Opera House in London next month. I am so excited. It was incredibly thoughtful of him – I love opera and we haven’t been out together in nearly four years. Not only did he buy the tickets, but he also secretly contacted a good friend of the family to step in and look after our daughter Julie (who can’t be left alone for long periods of time). Both of the children had to be in on the secret too: in our house, mum and dad can’t just disappear without warning, changes to routine have to be managed.

It was supposed to be a secret, but Joe can’t keep secrets. He managed about three days before going on the computer and shyly composing an “invitation” to the opera that he gave to me later that evening. I was bowled over! I’m not too crazy on surprises anyway.

Joe has never been to a proper opera theatre before, and is not that familiar with opera of any sort. He only began to listen to much classical music comparatively recently. I have been lucky enough to see quite a lot of opera when I was younger, but I don’t know this one at all: Simon Boccanegra by Verdi. So we decided to buy a recording and find a libretto and swot up before we go. Impossible to concentrate while our teenagers are about, so we sit up late into the night, listening, reading and hammering out the plot.

Just as well we have plenty of time because Simon Boccanegra turns out to be one of the most convoluted plots in opera (some achievement). Poor Joe, not that familiar with opera at the best of times, is often hopelessly lost: “But why is he called Fiesco on this page and Andrea on that one?”, “So if she’s really his girlfriend how come he doesn’t recognise… oh no, hang on, she’s his daughter?” Our translation is flowery: “What is the refulgence of the angels?” Joe asks me plaintively. But we’ve now got the basic hang of the plot, and become acquainted with some stunningly beautiful arias. Most of the time we know roughly who is on stage even if we’re not quite sure what they’re singing about at any given time. Could be love, could be pizza: not quite sure.

“We’re in luck,” I tell Joe, “At least there’s no cross dressing in this one, and you don’t have to try to convince yourself that the stout woman singing on stage is really a boy pretending to be dressed as a woman.” That really does warp the imagination.

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I have just started an evening course on mindfulness. This is a contination course: level 2. I took my first course in mindfulnesss two and a half years ago and the impact has been immense, and far-reaching. Returning for this course is partly to refresh what I learnt then, and to travel deeper.

How can I describe the importance of mindfulness in my life? It is hard to remember how it felt before I attended that first course. My daughter was in hospital, my family life was in chaos, I was barely in work. None of this was changed by mindfulness: at the end of that eight week course my daughter was still in hospital, it was still a battle to do something as simple as get to work, or attend a parents evening at school. But I was coping, I was making sense out my predicament, and I was starting to move forwards.

Two and a half years and a huge amount of lived experience later, I still use my mindfulness techniques every single day. I don’t always use them consciously (one reason I wanted to attend this course) but they are woven into my response to life. My family still lurches from crisis to crisis – I can’t alter that – but I don’t forget to breathe.

I can imagine that for a number of people, mindfulness is rather repellant. It can look terribly like a cult. My original course was run by buddhists at the Buddhist Centre and I know that for many people this is too unfamiliar, too alien, too weird. But although the connection to buddhism is not accidental, mindfulness is not a religion, it is not a challenge to religion. There is no need to sign up to a particular world view, to take part in religious services, or to feel reverence for particular things. It is a technique, a skill like swimming. It is as if mosques had a special relationship with swimming pools, and you had to track down an iman if you wanted to learn how to swim.

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