The side of a ‘strong person’ you don’t always see

Having been cut off from the outside world for the last 11 days in a vipassana (silent meditation) retreat, I didn’t realise #worldmentalhealthday had just taken place. But maybe the universe was speaking to me, because during my time in the retreat – undertaking one of the most challenging mental and physical experiences of my life – I was thinking about writing this post. So now, coinciding (almost) with World Mental Health Day 2019 seems like the perfect time to put it out there. Even if it’s a difficult post for me to write.

I’m fortunate to have some amazing people in my life who not only support me, but also tell me I’m a strong person – I’ve even heard a couple of people call me the strongest person they know after what they’ve seen me go through and achieve over the last few years. Wow. 

This is a huge compliment, especially since my social circle is made up to a large extent of people I consider to be strong people (surround yourself with people you want to be like). These comments, combined with some of the inspiring posts I’ve ready from others in honour of #worldmentalheathday2019 have made me reflect on what many people don’t see. The side we don’t usually share on social media, or with those who aren’t closest to us. The side hidden behind the masks and veneers we create online. The vulnerable side of our lives. 

This idea has been heightened for me after I posted on social media about completing the mental “endurance test” which vipassana became. I received many amazing comments and messages from people about my strength completing the 10 day course, and I’m so grateful for every single one of those comments. I’m honoured to receive them, thank you all. However, behind every strong person’s facade lies a vulnerable individual with real fears, emotions and anxieties. The same fears, emotions and anxieties as everyone else.

Appearing strong, and being strong doesn’t necessarily mean you feel strong. And it doesn’t mean you don’t cry, get angry, frustrated, depressed, scared or anxious, it just means it’s not always visible, or that it’s not always something you share with others. It’s totally normal to experience a wide range of emotions. And to deal with it, express it, and behave – as a result of it – in different ways.

So I’m posting this to show a different side of me than the one I usually post on social media. I’m posting it to show that we’re all vulnerable, even those people we might look up to, who we see as strong, and who we might think are immune to feeling shitty or being scared or anxious or depressed. 

If there’s any person you look up to as someone to emulate, someone who is a kind of a role model to you or others, someone you think is strong and confident and brave, remember, they are not immune to mental health challenges. None of us are immune. We just don’t always see what’s on the inside of other people’s heads unless they choose to share it with us.

It’s important too, to remind ourselves that while others might not always agree with or support the choices we make or the way we respond to events in our lives, we have to look after ourselves first, to find our own path to well-being and happiness, and to do what’s right for us as individuals. No-one else will do it for us. And if others don’t agree or support you, well, let them go. Focus on what’s within your control. Focus on the people who provide you with support. Most importantly, focus on yourself. 

If this post helps one person to realise that strength is not just a mental state, but is about our externalised behaviour, and that it’s okay to feel down, sad, or whatever emotional label you feel and want to attach to it; if it helps one person realise that even those who appear strong on the outside have the same anxieties and wobbles and fears as they do; or if it helps one person love themselves a bit more, or feel a tiny bit stronger, or take action to improve their own mental health, or that of someone else, then it’s served its purpose. 

By the way, it’s not been easy for me to write this (I’m kind of crapping myself about making myself so vulnerable); maybe I’ve been reading too many Brene Brown books recently which has given me this push to do it, but certainly spending 10 days in my own head last week and philosophising about life, the universe and what everything is all about leads me to feel like this is the right thing to do, right now. So (gulp), here we go…this is me…

I might appear strong, but…

…when my long-term partner died in 2015, I had a breakdown. I took time off work. I had panic attacks. I was depressed. Even when I went back to work a few weeks later, I had anxiety. I didn’t eat. I drank my own bodyweight in wine for several months (wine is not the answer, btw 🙂 ). Watching a loved one die is something which will never leave you. I still have occasional nightmares and dreams about that night, and about the aftermath of the following weeks and months, and there are a number of stories about the circumstances which play over in my mind at times which will never be resolved, because I can never ask him the questions which remain unanswered. Last week I had a meltdown during the vipassana course when I realised on that particular day, I was the exact age he was when he died, and I sobbed in my room all afternoon. I’ve now been on the planet longer than he was ever here. Do I talk about any of this? No, not often. But it doesn’t make my thoughts any less real. So don’t judge others by how they deal with loss, and by how much they do or don’t talk about it in public. Be sensitive and supportive as much as possible to others as you never know what’s going on in their heads.  

I might appear strong, but…

…when I moved to Singapore six months later, people told me I was so brave for doing it, but in reality, I was scared shitless. I had no idea what I was doing, I didn’t know anyone in Singapore, I’d never lived outside of Manchester (in fact, I’d never lived outside of Denton), I’d never been to Asia apart from a short scoping trip to Singapore, and I’d never run a business. But I also knew if I stayed in the same place and didn’t make some big changes in my life, nothing in my life would change and I’d stay miserable. And I came to the conclusion that if it all went wrong or I hated it, I could always move back. It ended up being one of the best decisions (albeit also the scariest) I’ve ever made, and I’ve met some wonderful people and had some incredible experiences as a result. So make changes, whether they’re small or big, to give yourself distance, space and time, physically and/or emotionally, to recover from the bad stuff which happens in your life, and to help you get some perspective. And say yes to opportunities when they come up. Better to regret things you’ve done, than things you haven’t done, at least in my opinion.

I might appear strong, but…

…I had breast surgery while living in Singapore, and for a while I didn’t know if this was malignant or not – luckily it wasn’t – but I do have to go back to the doctors to check on another lump early in the new year. I could have worried like mad at the time, and I could worry about this now, but worrying about something which hasn’t yet happened and which is out of my control anyway is, to me, a pointless waste of energy. So try to focus on being grateful for what you have right now and focus on the things you can control. This is absolutely easier said than done (as I mentioned, I’ve had anxiety, which feels all-consuming, so I’m really not being flippant here), but sometimes you can gradually shift your thoughts by shifting what you give your time and energy to.

I might appear strong, but…

…I was so stressed a couple of years ago I ended up with shingles, and had to take two weeks off work completely incapacitated. We all get stressed and we all handle it differently, and I clearly hadn’t handled it well at that point – so much so, it manifested physically. With hindsight my mental health self-care (e.g. meditation) had taken a back seat at that time. Meditation has since been a great medicine for me, but it’s not a panacea, so find what works for you.

I might appear strong, but…

…the last couple of weeks, the vipassana retreat has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, both mentally and physically. I’ve cried several times; I alluded to that earlier in this post, but I cried because my emotions became heightened in the hothouse of my mind where everything was amplified in the absence of any external stimulus (there’s no eye contact, mobile phones, reading, writing etc. etc. for 10 days, as well as complete silence). I cried because of the physical pain of sitting on the floor for almost 13 hours a day for 10 days. I cried because I felt claustrophobic in my own body and mind, and because I couldn’t talk to anyone. And then I managed to get some sleep, refocus and get my shit together. The meditation definitely helped me to become more objective and to clear my mind of the chatter and negative thoughts which had been building. I’ll write a separate blog about the whole experience, but for me, there is something in meditating in general (not specifically vipassana) which has helped me be more objective about my emotions and thoughts and less engaged with them. They’re still there, but rather than being in the road with the traffic (thoughts), I am better able to stand at the side of the road and observe the traffic (thoughts) going by before I jump in and react. What’s your coping mechanism for dealing with your thoughts and feelings? 

I might appear strong, but…

…while I might look like I’m having the time of my life travelling around the world right now – and to a large extent I am, I’m certainly trying to live my best life – I didn’t expect to be aged 38, widowed, single, and childless. I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that this is not the path I dreamed of for myself when I was growing up. But after everything that’s happened in my life, I’m grateful to be alive and I’ve chosen to make the absolute best I can of the situations I’ve found myself in, and the opportunities which have presented themselves. I’m also very conscious that much of life is about how we look at a situation, and the stories we tell ourselves, about our own lives or those of other people. Take me as an example. I’m either young(ish), free, single and having the time of my life travelling around the world, or I’m approaching middle age, with no job, no home, no kids and no significant other. Both of these descriptions are true, but I choose to run with the positives. What stories do you tell yourself about your life and its context? Are you focusing on the positives or are you letting negative narratives drag you down?

As you can see, in recent years (and even in the last week) – that is, during the time lots of people have told me what a strong person I am – there have been plenty of occasions when I’ve struggled with what’s going on in my life and in my head, and how to maintain balance. I take active steps to focus on strategies which help me, like the meditation, and I focus on positive narratives I tell myself about events in my life, which I’m able to control. I try to let go of the things I can’t control, but of course, this is easier said than done, so I’m dealing with everything as well as I can, and I’m making progress every day, like many of us are. But things come up, and when they do, it’s okay to admit them, talk to those close to you, or take whatever action is helpful for you to regain some balance. And maybe sometimes that makes you appear strong to someone else.

So if you take one thing from reading this post, let it be this: no-one is completely fine, however they might look on the outside. We all have our challenges, we all deal with them differently, and we’re all a work in progress. It’s perfectly normal not to be okay, but if that’s the case, the best thing you can do is work on finding the most effective way of looking after yourself, whether that’s talking to the people closest to you, meditation, constructing narratives, therapy, medication or something else. And remember to support the people close to you with their challenges too, even if that’s just by being there as a friend. 

If you’re willing to share your thoughts, I’d love to hear more from you about your own vulnerabilities, your advice to others, and any builds on what I’ve said above. In the meantime, namaste from Nepal xx

#Worldmentalhealthday2019 #worldmentalhealthday #itsokaynottobeokay 

Photo taken at Begnas Lake, Pokhara, Nepal where I’m currently staying 

It’s all in the detail

Have you ever noticed how the Circle line on a tube map looks like it changes colour part way around?

tube_map

When it’s next to the pink Hammersmith & City line it looks orange, but next to the green District line it looks yellow. So what colour is it?

It usually appears yellow, although we don’t always see it as yellow; our perception of colour changes depending on the context. The colour of the adjacent line changes the way we see the yellow line. Weird. But true.

I was lucky enough to be at a workshop a couple of years ago run by neuroscientist and fantastic speaker Beau Lotto where he talked about how our perception is different from reality, and how context, including colour, lighting and the position of objects, affects how we see and respond to the world. I knew context was important in understanding how we behave and think, but I’d been thinking in terms of social factors, emotions or even the weather. Not about how something as basic as light can affect how we see the world.

Beau demonstrated quite a few visual illusions  including the cube one (featured here, amongst others) where the same coloured square appears to be a different colour depending on the lighting conditions. It’s strange to think that what we think we see, or what our brains interpret as ‘real’, is sometimes a trick of the mind or function of how our brans are wired, rather than ‘truth’.

Another example of something really simple affecting how we see patterns, which I use in the consumer psychology course I run for the MRS, is to write a selection of letters of the alphabet – about 15 or so – on a flip chart and ask someone to spend about a minute making as many words from them as they can. Give someone else the same letters, but written in a different order, and the words they’ll each come up with tend to be different.

People make different patterns in the letters based on the order they’re presented in. Adjacent and nearby letters are put together to form new words, so when the order changes, so do the words created. This is also why writing ideas or concepts on cards and jumbling them up can work well as a creative technique – you make new connections between cards which you might not otherwise put together. Context, right down to the order something’s presented to us in, really is key to understanding how we interpret and interact with the world around us.

It’s no wonder it’s so difficult to understand or predict how people behave. Not only do we walk around on autopilot most of the time, and not only are we more influenced by our emotions than we tend to give credit for, but it turns out that even something as seemingly innocuous as light affects how we see the world. And most of the time, we’re probably not even aware of it. Here’s to trying to figure people out anyway.

How a cockroach turned me vegetarian

I’ve thought seriously about becoming a vegetarian since I was about 10 years old. I’ve never really eaten much meat; I used to try all sorts of tricks to avoid eating the pork, beef or other meaty yukkiness my mum used to make us as kids, from feeding the cats to dropping it in my cup when I thought no-one was looking, or trying to hide it under my leftover mashed potatoes and sneaking it into the bin. Incidentally, that’s not a criticism of my mum’s cooking, she just seemed to cook a lot of meat. Which I really didn’t like eating.

When I was 11, I asked my mum if I could become a vegetarian and when she asked why, I told her I didn’t like eating meat. She said, “wrong answer, so no you can’t,” and that was pretty much that. I’d eat burgers and bacon, but pretty much the only other meat I’d eat was mincemeat i.e. meat that didn’t have a meaty texture. But even then, if I thought about what I was eating, about the poor piggy or moo cow that used to run around a farm with their piggy and moo cows friends before ending up on my plate, I’d stop eating and feel pretty mean. And think about going veggie again.

But every time I thought about it, I thought about how much I liked eating burgers and how I’d gone 20 or 30-odd years not being a vegetarian and not labelling myself and not stopping myself from eating the odd burger. And after convincing myself the odd burger wouldn’t do any harm, each time I’d go back to being pretty much a vegetarian except the odd burger or bacon butty.

I have an ill-fated cockroach to thank for finally tipping me into a decision in September last year to vow never to eat anything with a face ever again.

veg meme

We were sitting outside at the hotel bar one evening on holiday in Tenerife, a few drinks in, when a cockroach appeared under someone’s table. This was quickly followed by everyone in the vicinity freaking out as though the weird alien thing from Alien had just erupted from someone’s stomach, accompanied by shrieks of ‘kill it!’ and ‘stamp on it!’ I mean, it’s a cockroach. It’s small. It’s not going to kill you. I’m not exactly a lover of cockroaches but we had one in our room for at least half of our holiday because I couldn’t catch it (and the other half refused to try). It didn’t do us any harm.

And I thought, if that was a kitten, no-one would be shouting ‘stamp on it.’ But apparently it’s perfectly acceptable when it’s a cockroach. Does that really make sense? (It didn’t at the time, although I had had a few drinks at this point…) I suddenly wondered how I could be so bothered about injustice to a a cockroach and then eat burgers. And then I thought about the burgers they’d been serving at the pool bar. Which were pretty awful. Which probably means they came from pretty awful cows. Poor cows. I could see their little cow-ish faces, blinking at me. And I thought, this is it, I’m not going to eat anything with a face ever again. (And yes, that does include fish. Whether they feel pain or not, they still have faces.)

Since I really thought about the cows and the piggies as real creatures with faces running round in the fields, I don’t eat them any more. And although I still have times when I really, really want a burger, I tell myself I really, really don’t want to eat a dead cow. And that usually does the trick. I can’t pretend I don’t want one though.

I found out when I got back from my holiday that a lot of wine isn’t actually vegetarian. This may be a surprise to you – it certainly was to me – and potentially a bit of a problem as I am partial to the odd glass of wine. And what do you do at a bar when you order a glass of vino – ask whether the wine is vegetarian? Do you scour the supermarket shelves for a decent wine which has a vegetarian symbol on it? If it doesn’t have a vegetarian symbol on it, do you assume it’s not suitable – which rules out the majority of bottles?

Well I could. But I don’t. Wine isn’t meat. I can’t see it’s face, oinking or mooing at me. This probably makes me a really bad vegetarian. And if that’s the case, I don’t mind being a non-meat-eater instead. Maybe I should change the title of the post.