Tuesday, 10 October 2017

World Mental Health Day 2017 Kintsugi facepaint

1 in 4 adults and 1 in 10 children will experience a mental health problem in a given year. In any given week 1 in 10 adults are suffering with depression. With such statistics it's hard to believe that we all talk so little about mental health and that there is still such stigma surrounding it.

This year, on World Mental Health Day, I am celebrating my history of mental illness and showing that it is nothing to be ashamed of by painting golden cracks on my face to imitate the Japanse art of Kintsugi.

Kintsugi, roughly translated as 'golden joinery', is a Zen tradition of repairing broken ceramics with a gold infused lacquer. It is a practice filled with respect for the item, rather than trying to hide the cracks, the gold lacquer makes a strong join while celebrating the damage endured along the way. In this way I want to show that despite the many times my mental health difficulties have broken me, I have taken great care to put myself back together again but I also carry the history of those experiences with me and they are a part of who I am and make me, as a person, stronger and more beautiful than before.

For me, ACT is my gold infused lacquer, helping me join the pieces back together, stronger and more resilient than before and this blog is my way of showing off the beauty of those gold cracks to the world. Whatever tools you use to help you manage your illness I hope you will want to join in with me today and on future World Mental Health days.

Please post your photos on the Keeping Up The ACT Facebook page and pass the idea on to your friends. If you have joined me today or in the future, then my heartfelt thanks to you.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Kintsugi for mental health awareness

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of joining broken ceramics together with gold infused lacquer. Instead of hiding the joins between the pieces, the golden lacquer celebrates and honours the item's history by highlighting every crack.

When we suffer with mental health problems it can often feel like we have been broken and we spend huge amounts of effort putting ourselves back together again. But sadly we have a tendency to hide our struggles and not let anyone else know what we've been through - trying to put the pieces together while hiding the cracks. Maybe we could take a lesson from Kintsugi and celebrate our own history, the struggles we've been through and the achievement of working through them.

This World Mental Health Day on Tuesday 10th October, join me as I paint golden cracks on my face to celebrate the beauty of the mental health issues I've endured and show others that they are not alone in their struggles.

I will be using facepaint to create the golden cracks on my face but feel free to use photo editing software to make your own image. Perhaps you would like to use your image as your Facebook profile photo on World Mental Health Day or just post it on our Facebook page to show your support. Thank you so much for helping raise awareness of mental health.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Using ACT during the most distressing parts of life.

Warning: this piece discusses pet euthanasia.

I believe that it is important to practice the ACT techniques in the everyday, mundane moments in life because it makes those skills accessible when life gets really difficult. If you don't practice it when things are easy then when life gets tough you forget the tools even exist and then wonder after the emotional storm has passed why you didn't think to use them.

I well and truly proved this theory to myself a few weeks ago. I have been practicing ACT for several years now, in easy times and harder ones. The other week I managed to use ACT during one of the most distressing moments in my life and even though I'm already a pretty devout believer in this stuff, I was amazed to watch it working for me at such a destructively distressing time.

Some background: many years ago I saw a young rabbit in a pet shop with such a wonderfully curious and loving personality that I felt I was meant to buy him. I was at a very low point in my life and looking after this adorable, good natured little bunny gave me a small sense of purpose, a glimmer in the darkness which surrounded me daily. I vividly remember a moment when I was seriously considering suicide but I chose to get my rabbit out of his cage and just sat and held him on my chest with his head tucked under my chin. He sat placidly in my arms and I had this sense of unconditional love from him even while I felt like the most unlovable thing on this planet. At that moment I loved him more than anything, I poured my love back to him and he held it all in his calm, peaceful way. He anchored me in that emotional storm and helped me to find a way to keep living. Over the years there were many moments I returned to him when I was feeling low and he was always such a steady, loving presence.

A few years ago my rabbit was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. We medicated him, kept him warm and comfortable and didn't expect him to last the year but he rallied and kept going for several years. Then it came back with a vengeance a few weeks ago after my other rabbit, his friend for most of his life, passed away. After a string of visits to the vets for various other health problems, he finally stopped eating or ingesting his medicine and was clearly struggling to breathe or move. The time had come to help him pass away so we booked an appointment with our local vet.

I sat and cuddled him on my chest just like I had all those years ago and when the time came to leave I desperately didn't want to go - I didn't want to accept that this was the end, but I also didn't want to leave him suffering like he was.

In the vets, after a short confirmation of his condition and signing of forms, the vet took him away to put a cannula in, promising to bring him back for the final part. I was left alone in the empty room, no longer able to comfort my dear little bunny. As soon as the vet left the room I internally screamed until it nearly burst from my lips. My mind screamed over and over that I didn't want to be here, I didn't want to do this. My teeth clenched and a distressing pressure built up inside me like a pot about to boil over.

Then suddenly, I remembered - ACT teaches us to be willing to feel our emotions. I was definitely not willing in that moment - I was fighting my own experience with all my strength. It was time to try something different, time to try what ACT teaches. So I turned myself to face what I was feeling and opened myself up to it. This feels like the most counterintuitive thing you possibly could do, especially when you are feeling so very distressed - I can't possibly open myself up to this, it will overwhelm me, it might kill me. But as I turned towards it, my body released it and the sharp edge of it dissipated like a half remembered dream upon waking. The feelings of distress didn't completely disappear but they lessened to what felt like a much more natural level. It was like the overflowing pot had reduced back down to a steady boil. I was still distressed but it was no longer boiling over and overwhelming me. It was the most distinct example I've ever experienced of the suffering we can build up around natural emotional pain and how ACT techniques can alleviate that suffering.

Throughout my wait, which was interminably long, I repeatedly allowed myself to feel my feelings. As the wait grew longer and longer my mind started panicking - drawing me into imagining what could possibly be happening in the next room. Had his heart failed while they were working on him? Had they cut a vein and was he bleeding to death on the table? Had I not been clear that I wanted to be with him while he was put down and had they already done it without me? As these catastrophic thoughts carried me off I managed to remind myself to come back to the present moment - noticing myself in this room at this moment, noticing the objects in the room and my breathing. It was again, very counterintuitive to draw my attention to my present moment experience, after all, the present moment was the last place I wanted to be right now. But to my surprise I found the present moment was the safest place to be - away from the storm of thoughts about why the wait was taking so long. In the present moment I could observe those thoughts but not get caught up in them and I could accept that I simply could not do anything about what was happening next door, that all I could do was wait and hope.

Eventually my rabbit was brought through and all too soon he died in my arms with his head tucked under my chin. That was the end of my rabbit's story but he will live on in my memory and my heart.

I am still surprised by how effective the ACT techniques were for me at such a distressing time. I had to constantly remind myself to open up to my feelings and return my attention to the present but doing these things kept my distress from boiling over and consuming me. It was still a horrible time, but ACT helped me to get through it. It helped me to experience the normal, natural emotional pain without it increasing to the suffering which my instinctive tendency to resist my emotions causes. If I hadn't been practicing these techniques in everyday life then I don't think I would have remembered to use them nor been confident enough to try them.

So I hope this serves as motivation to some of you to keep plugging away and practicing the ACT techniques you have learned, even if life is going well and you don't feel like you need to use them much. Practicing now will give you the opportunity to use these skills when life gets rougher as it inevitably does from time to time.

In memory of my dear rabbit - you meant the world to me. Thank you so much for being a part of my life.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Making changes when our pet dies

When a pet dies it can stir up a lot of painful emotions - loss, grief and sometimes guilt and regret about not having treated them as well as we would have liked. This pain can motivate us to treat our remaining pets better - spending more time with them, playing with them more etc. We can become acutely aware of the fragility and brevity of life and the need to make the most of the time our pets are with us. But when our actions are motivated by this pain and we give extra attention to our pets as a way to alleviate that pain, then the changes we make don't last. When the emotional pain of our pet's death passes, as it naturally does eventually, then we lose the motivation that was driving us and fall back into our old ways.

I speak from experience here - every time a pet dies I wonder why I didn't learn from my last pet. I think the answer lies in the purpose of our change in behaviour towards our other pets. Whether deliberately or not, the purpose might be to avoid some of that emotional pain - the guilt and regret about our past actions. Treating our other pets differently can help us to feel better. But if we're doing it to feel better then we can't have lasting change because once the feelings of regret dissipate so does our motivation. There's no need to take action that makes us feel better if we're feeling ok again.

So how do we make the lasting change that's in our heart when we lose a much loved pet? We need to start by opening up to the feelings we are having, turn towards them and be willing to feel them, not all the time if not possible, but when it feels safe enough to do so. We may need to set ourselves some time out of our busy schedules to do this - to sit quietly and think. Next, we need to explore and reflect on our feelings of regret or guilt or self-blame; ask ourselves why we feel this way and what we would have liked to have done differently. When we do this self reflection we can easily fall into the trap of overly focusing on what we should have done and get wrapped up in self-blame and anger towards ourselves. Try to hold these feelings lightly, acknowledge that they are there and then refocus on what these feelings are suggesting that you should do differently in the future. I'm sorry to say that no matter how much we want to, we can't change what we have done in the past but the beautiful thing is that we can learn from it and we have every opportunity to act differently in the future. I don't think there is any greater way to honour our lost companions than learning from our lives together - both the good and the bad - and taking that lesson forwards into the rest of our lives.

With that in mind, we finally need to find out what our underlying value is - the direction we want our actions to head towards in the future, the kind of person we want to be in regards to our role as a pet owner. The value we find may turn out to guide the exact same behaviour towards your other pets as you would have done to avoid your feelings, but this time you are left with a value which can guide your actions in the future even when your grief fades away. Write it down if you need to, you might need a reminder in the future of what truly matters to you.

For example, I wished I had spent more time with my rabbit rather than just fleetingly seeing her as I let her out and put her back away everyday. From this I realised that I value spending time with my pets. Since my rabbit died I have used this value to guide me to pause more often and stroke my cats when they approach me and to spending a few more minutes with my surviving rabbit everyday. Notice that I have not gone extreme with my changes, I have not forced a rule upon myself that I must spend as much time as possible with my pets. Values are much gentler - they don't demand that you must act in a certain way, they are there to guide you, making every moment an opportunity to do something that takes you towards those values. I intend to use this value to continue spending little bits of extra time with my pets, to help me choose to prioritise them when I can, so that even when my grief fades I will continue to properly honour my rabbit's memory.

In loving memory of my rabbit - you were a grumpy old fluffball but I loved you dearly.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

What teasing might be teaching our kids

At a local dinosaur park I witnessed a father scaring his two young kids and then laughing at them saying “ha ha, you were scared” in the same way as you would expect children in the schoolyard to do when they tease one another. And then it struck me - are we inadvertently teaching our kids to tease one another and in more extreme cases bully one another by our own interactions with them? I had always thought that the meanness and teasing that was present at school was just how kids are but now I suspect that we are actually teaching this kind of behaviour to our kids. This dad was clearly just playing around and didn't mean anything by his actions but he failed to realise that this was the behaviour he was modeling to his kids - it's ok to tease others, to scare them and to laugh at them. These kids didn't seem hurt by their dad's jibes but the problem is that they learn these interactions and replicate them with others who may feel hurt by them and in situations which may not be appropriate.

The other problem I have with this man’s teasing is that he was shaming his kids for having a perfectly normal and natural emotion - fear. He was not so subtly teaching them that it is not ok to feel fear, that it's something to be humiliated for. I sadly see this a lot at this dinosaur park - parents saying things to their children like “don't be such a wuss” and “you're always so scaredy”. You might as well be whispering in their ears “it's not ok to feel scared, you shouldn't feel scared, there's something wrong with you if you do feel scared.” When you invalidate a child's feelings they're going to naturally turn to experiencial avoidance - they will try to not feel those feelings that they have been told not to feel. In ACT’s view this experiencial avoidance can lead to greater suffering - for example, maybe they refuse invitations to sleepovers because they don't want their friends to know they're afraid of the dark leading to feelings of isolation and perhaps thoughts of “nobody likes me anyway” which could lead to further avoidance of other social situations and further unhappiness. Once learned, experiencial avoidance can be a hard habit to break so maybe we should try to keep our children's minds open about experiencing painful emotions. It's ok to feel these feelings, it is normal to feel these feelings, they may feel big right now but they can never get bigger than you, you can contain them and they will pass like clouds in the sky.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Impact of my animation

I was honoured to have my animation shown to over 100 psychologists and mental health professionals at the conference I attended earlier this week.

For those who don't know, I made this animation as one of my weekly goals in the later weeks of ACT group therapy. I had been unable to animate for a long time prior due to my intrusive thoughts and the feelings they evoked in me every time I sat in front of the computer to work. So it was a big part of my recovery and a testament to the efficacy of the ACT techniques that I managed to make this animation.

Though I have shown it to many classes in the Recovery College over the years and always received praise for it, I never really got the impression that it could be useful to psychologists and their work. I am naturally quite modest about my work and find it very hard to believe that anyone finds any value in it. But at the conference I was approached by several professionals who were very enthusiastic about the animation and wanted to use it in their work. I was also told by one professional to whom I had given permission to use it several years ago that it had been so helpful in her work. I had never really thought that my animation could be that helpful to people and am proud to have it freely available on YouTube so others can find it and use it in their work.