Living Differently - Heartpoint (for Catherine)

I'm still getting over my most recent energy crash. It takes a lot of self-discipline to care for myself this much. And I don't mean the physical side of taking enough rest or eating properly but the emotional component. That one I find pretty tough. For every step I take towards self-compassion a voice rears up in my head reminding me, with great authority, how indulgent I'm being to take it this easy and that I should be doing more.  It's an hourly battle not to be crushed by this inner dictatorial voice and I find myself losing the ability to see what I need with any clarity at all. To feel so in the wilderness with nothing but my own punishing thoughts for company can be a pretty lonely place and I begin to wonder if I'll ever find my way back home. Now I've written this down I can see it does sound rather melodramatic. It's also the truth.

Chronic illnesses have wavering symptoms, ranging from just about nearly OK to absolutely bloody awful and if the ghastly period is unrelenting the fear can hold you pretty tightly in its grip. The whole process of going through a crash, relapse, or flare is extremely traumatising. After the metaphorical storm has passed I find myself wincing at even the tiniest drop of rain. I know I'm not alone in this and that the unpredictable nature of long term sickness can be very anxiety producing. This is perhaps why so many of us turn to meditation, buddhism, a spiritual practice or a creative outlet to aid our navigation through these rough seas.

So, it will be no surprise to hear that recently I had given up on magic altogether, even in its most human form. That was until my friend Dina invited me over to her studio for a prolonged session of recuperative yoga. It's not the first time she's done this and I'm always grateful. The session lasted over two hours and Dina put me in a series of prolonged resting postures on mountains of bolsters and blocks, covering me with cosy blankets until I drifted in to that safe and hypnotic space between waking and sleeping. She is an expert at arranging the equipment and I often felt like I was floating in space, momentarily free of the burden of gravity.

One thing that struck me was Dina's attention to detail. Even my skinny wrists were supported by rolled up blankets. We often think of holding on as something we do with our hands but our wrists can also carry a great deal of tension, the support I had enabled me to let go at last, to take flight. I decided to find out what mysteries our often neglected wrists held and discovered the location of Heart Point 7  described as an acupressure point to quell anxiety. It also served as a reminder to me that when we are feeling our most fragile the seemingly smallest things make the greatest difference and hold the key to our emotional sanctuary. I've called this heartpoint to highlight that even in our most difficult times there are clues everywhere, tiny doorways to love and tenderness and it's in the silence and stillness that they are revealed to us.

NB: This post is dedicated to my friend Catherine who is in the middle of a storm right now.

Living Differently - The Nowhere

It's six in the morning and I have had one of those broken nights where only the promise that nothing lasts forever keeps me going, not even this sleepless night. Upstairs the neighbours are partying, their laughter coming in waves. Then silence. And then the music, dancing and more laughter. It seems fitting that I am beneath all the celebration and joy overhead. Much like watching a loud plane break a clear sky with its flight and wondering where the passengers are going. A means of escape feels very distant to me right now. Being sick for a long time can feel like living underground, a life in the shadows where one is painfully aware of what is happening on the surface in the world above. Two weeks ago a miracle happened - I felt well enough to go out in the evening for two nights in a row. I met friends, some of whom I had not seen since before getting ill, and I looked and felt like a healthy person. It was the taste of freedom and the echo from my previous life that I crave constantly. However I was not out of the woods yet. A week ago I developed more new painful symptoms and a mysterious infection which medication just won't budge and have been bedbound ever since. I have been chomping painkillers like chocolates but they don't touch the sides. I am very afraid.

The constant trauma of being ill long-term means that each new symptom, each new facet of illness brings with it terrifying waves of anxiety. The questions swirl around my head will I get worse ? why is it happening ? when will this pain leave me ? what can I do to make it end ? As the panic escalates the answers are torturous - It will get worse, you will die a painful and lengthy death and there is nothing you can do.

The truth is I do not know what will happen. But even not knowing the outcome of my current state and that anything could happen, good as well as bad, gives me no comfort. I want to know. I want to know now that it will all be OK. Being present to feeling in the wilderness just heightens my fear.

Fear is a gateway to truth, if only we can listen to it. I am indebted to one writer who has helped me on my journey - this blog post by the esteemed Tara Brach sheds light on what we can do in such trying times. We can soften, we can let the grief and the terror have its place and we can feel the love and tenderness that is available to us. We can love ourselves.

It would be an exaggeration to say that I am experiencing the peace Tara talks about. However I do have a map and at least I know I am not alone. How many people at this hour feel the pain of not knowing the outcome or live with the prospect of a cruel future ? Millions to be sure. How many of us, when faced with the truth of our own mortality buckle ? To collapse when confronted with the harsh reality of our short time here, the fragility of flesh and bone, is an understandable response.

There's more. Now I know my feeling scared is human I can look further. One thing that illness has not taken from me is my inquisitive nature. I always want to know what the next question is, what else there is to learn. If I allow my starting point to be my legitimised fear and if I can be tender to myself in these moments I can then look behind the fear and see what it's preventing me from seeing.

At first it's grief. Oceans of tears for so much loss - beginning with all that I have lost since my illness began and then bleeding out like an inkblot to all losses, past, present and future. That hurts so much I can hardly continue my exploration. The fear rises again but something tells me to continue on my path.

Fear has stripped away every line of defence I thought I had. I am exhausted, sad and defeated. But wait - even as I write this, sick and tired as I am - I see myself as totally lost , stranded in a vast nowhere and very alone. This is it. The party people are listening to Stevie Wonder, how could I resent them their good taste ? I am alone in the wilderness listening to "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" through the floorboards and a slight smile crosses my face. Another thought - what happens if, just for a moment, I loosen my grip and stand back and just observe.

Locating that I do and have always felt lost, estranged even in my own body, gives me some calm at last. I can say with certainty that I have never felt at home in the world. This truth brings tears of relief and quietens the fearsome chatter in my head.

This is where I am. I am nowhere. I do not know why this shocking revelation gives me comfort but it does. For a brief moment I touch my own nothingness. And I feel almost OK. If I keep touching the truth of the nowhere and the nothingness then the fear eases.

I can hear more talking upstairs. Someone has a lot to say, and loudly. And me ? I am in the cradle of this vast unknown space. I am held by the stars.

Living Differently - Giving Up Normal

I've been struggling with getting down to writing and taking photographs (the latter always being my refuge when the going gets tough) for a while. Shame has been like a gargoyle with its nails permanently in my back whispering cruel nothings in my ear and nothing has felt right or good. My experience of living with chronic illness continues to be both terrifying as well as a total and utter bore. It still amazes me that on my worst days, the ones where I find it hard to get out of bed or leave the flat, I can still find a surprising amount of energy for determined self-loathing. A lot of it evolves around what I think I should be doing, what I used to do and what a miserable and useless person I am for not being able to live life the way I used to. The 'Should Monster' comes to haunt me on my most fragile days telling me that even ill I should be jolly, invincible, tirelessly creative and above all not ever make a fuss. As a good friend said to me recently 'Sometimes being positive is just not the appropriate response.' I know she's right of course but daily I want to live 'normally', whatever the heck that actually means.

It's Saturday night and I'm in my pyjamas and a fleece dressing gown that feels like wearing a top to toe hug from a teddy bear. I'm listening to some Latin Jazz and have finally got down to letting my fingers dance over the keyboard. So, what happened to finally get me here ? This afternoon I spent a few hours in some gentle and generous company at TheWhatWorks residency, a creative adventure utilising the Open Space model. Put simply, in a creative context, this allows for flow and participants are encouraged to move from activity to activity if they want to, (or stay in one place if that works for them). Nothing is wrong. Anything can happen. That in itself is liberating and goes against a lot of the hierarchical teachings we have had bestowed on us since childhood. Because my energy is low I could only stay for a few hours but it was well worth it. I learnt about rhizomatic theory which, in a few short moments, was like coming up for air after living for years underground.

I cannot pretend I know anything about the complexities of this theory however the image of a plant's roots spreading horizontally just under the top of layer of soil struck a chord and reminded me that not everything has to be about the giddy ascent Capitalism preaches. That, and my 'go to' healing spice as Autumn approaches, is the much-loved rhizome Ginger, had me thinking that perhaps giving up 'normal' was the way to get the monster off my back at last.

As I have said I've been feeling pretty appalling recently. Health and housing issues have destabilised me. At least these current roadblocks have allowed me to observe something about myself - when I am at my most vulnerable I am most inclined to punish myself with ideas of conforming to a fictional ideal. Here's my list of what living with long-term illness continues to teach me, even as I resist it. And why giving up 'normal' can be a great thing to do if you feel like a hair-raising skydive in to the unchartered parts of yourself.

In fact that's the first - I can't shy away from myself. Illness strips me to the core. I am beginning to find out who I am, at last. - And that has had a massive impact on all my relationships. Some have withered whilst other relationships have grown and become more intimate. All of them have changed. - I am learning that sometimes the only response is to do nothing, that I have to 'let it' whatever that is. Even the agony is more tolerable if I stop looking for ways to fix it. - The outcome is always uncertain, we all live in the 'I don't know what the future holds' however much we try to run from this. - That whenever I trust my inner voice things are so much easier to deal with. In fear I often lose contact with this voice and everything goes haywire. - And what does my intuition tell me - pretty much always the same thing, to be kind and gentle and forgiving of myself, even those parts I feel I cannot forgive. It says love myself and to remain present.

I cannot state this enough. Be kind and gentle to yourself and remain present, always.

Cause and effect

Living Differently - Learning Kindness

8569599640_2ecc2c56ac_b Nearly everyone has a default, a go-to place where they think they can hold off the tide of inevitability. Sometimes it is an addiction to being intensely busy, for others it's running as fast and as far away from any uncomfortable feelings it's possible to go. Mine is wanting to know, hoping that if I ask the right questions I'll get the right answers and then find a way to dig myself out of whatever mess I'm in. Even if that means I'm using a teaspoon not a shovel. Many have called me over-analytical and there is some truth in that. I know that my constant state of enquiry has allowed me the illusion of control. But what an illusion. It's also meant that when things have been really tough, like now, I can tell myself I am learning something - I may be suffering but I am not stupid !

Long term illness has got me a questioning many things. Why am I ill ? How can I can better ? Will I ever get well and, perhaps the most enduring, How can I live this way ? My experience of illness so far is one of dealing with one loss after another. Loss of health (obviously), loss of independence, loss of a working life, loss of friends and a social life, loss of travel. The list is long. And as much as the grief hurts it is something I find easier to live with than the grating anger and resentment for feeling so left out in the cold. Needing to know why, or what to do with the 'why' doesn't help me one bit.

A friend suggested I listen to Kristin Neff who calls herself a 'self-compassion evangelist'. What I find most interesting about her work is that she encourages self-compassion even with one's self-critic and the most self-destructive things we tell ourselves. Hearing this for the first time was like living with air-conditioning your whole life and suddenly have someone open the window and breathing in real air at last.

Before this any self-compassion exercises had been limited to a wholesome meal, a bath with essential oils, candles and the Bach Cello Suites. I may have managed to squeeze in a cursory acknowledgement that I was not the only one in pain on the entire planet, but with no real sense of connectedness. I lit more candles, cried more tears hoping the gentle music would save me from my most uncomfortable feelings. But I still felt bitter, still felt eaten up with such a roaring anger it is a wonder its fires hadn't burnt London for the second time.

It is only in the last few days, when I've been feeling angry, hurt and ashamed that I decided to share my feelings with a few friends online who also live with chronic illness. My friend Toni Bernard reminded me that 'there is no end to how much self-compassion we can give ourselves' and that even what I considered the most distasteful parts of myself deserved my love and attention. It seems all so clear written down but I am only just learning kindness.

The essential oils, the cut flowers, the warm bed are much needed accoutrements however this is only start. For years, far pre-dating my current state of health, I've fought against what I considered the most ugly parts of who I am. I wanted to eradicate those feelings. Years later I am still the hyper-sensitive, volatile person I always was. And perhaps, just perhaps, this illness has led me to a place where I can begin to accept and love who I am, every part of me, even the part who carries a big stick and dreams of torching everything.

Living Differently - Making it Better

wod2 Despite all my protestations of self-enquiry I'm not that unusual, I want to feel better rather than worse, to see change happening without having to break my back doing it. Well, I say that but is it true ? If there's one thing this lengthy illness has taught me is that I am not the person I say I am, even to myself.

My old friend Kitty sent me a photo taken decades ago in a photobooth. She remarked how carefree we look. I've scrutinised my gaze seeing if I could find clues of a future me. Nothing, except my hair is much the same and I'm a little anxious, as ever. What stings of course is not how young we look but how carefree. Of course this is the order of things and the luckiest amongst us get to have at least some taste of freedom in their childhood. But I keep asking myself what happened, where has that open-ness gone ?

Chronic illness is a rattlebag of unwanted and much needed lessons. I say unwanted because I would much rather be happy without having to try and this sickness squeezes the juice of gratitude from you. Because, in the end, being thankful is the only way to live. Bitterness is not an option but I am drawn to its magnetic pull frequently.

Over the last 18 months I've played different mind games with myself. Distraction is not the preserve of those who are ill, but it is for those who are suffering. Better not to feel the pain than feel it, it can all get too much at times. And distraction, even for the mostly housebound like myself, can take many tempting forms from watching light-hearted entertainment to being online for hours, from obsessing over personal relationships to close companionship. It is not always a bad thing and sometimes it's a life-saver.

Sometimes the distraction is enough. But it doesn't always work and then I pick up my books and look for An Answer, a Buddhist or meditation practice that whilst allowing me to sit with my emotional and physical discomfort will actually make it go away. I realise that I swing between these two states - an absorbing distraction on one hand, and a frantic desire to find a liberating truth, an acceptance in my suffering on the other. I work so hard just to feel OK. Whichever path I take I always want to make it better, and fast.

Today, after another night of fretful sleep, I woke at 6am. My heart sank when I looked at my phone and calculated how little sleep I'd had. This is not unusual. I then begin to panic, think of how good health seems so illusive and then, often (my first distraction of the day) I go online and see what's happening. My idea of 'letting it be' usually means my lying in the cold and dark until I'm weeping with frustration and fear. This morning I wondered if there was another way.

I've just begun reading 'True Refuge' by Tara Brach. She talks about meditation as a tool to find the refuge we need and that it lives in all of us. A good friend of mine who has lived with long term illness for nearly 20 years says that Balanced View has helped her access this inner calm, and another tells me that CBT has help her question her assumptions and beliefs. And here I am banging my fists against the door of self-love and acceptance and not getting anywhere.

Like this morning when I counted the hours of rest I'd had, this weighing up of how good I feel prevents me from experiencing what is really going on. My preoccupation with 'making it better' means that I hardly ever get to enjoy the ride for what it is. What if there is no making it better, what if it is just what it is. What If I never get well (and the one thing I can count on is that I, along with all those I love, will die) ? This thought, from an unexpected quarter, gave me solace. If there is no better, no life without some sort of suffering to deal with, there is no worse. Of course this beautiful realisation is momentary but there it is, map-tacked to my brain when I feel uncertain again.

I look at the picture of Kitty and myself again and one thought crosses my mind. It's what my aunt said as we were in the hearse going to my father's funeral. Passing all the gravestones on the way to the crematorium she said 'Look at all these people, they all had their turn'. And it's true my younger self had her turn and this is my turn now. Not to suffer without respite but to be here and to be here now.