For The Joy Of It

For a long time I have been saying that I want to write. And for a long time, I haven’t. There are all sorts of reasons for that but mainly I never had the time. Which actually means I never made the time. I never made the time because sitting down to write felt like such an indulgence; there were always other things that I ‘should’ be doing. I never made the time because I was convinced I wasn’t actually any good at writing and so what was the point. I never made the time because I was scared: here was a thing I wanted, badly, to do well at. A thing I would love to make at least part of a career out of. But what if I tried and failed? By never actually doing it I could hold onto the daydream, writing odd snippets here and there, but never risking the possibility of discovering it was never meant to be.

You’d have thought I’d have learnt by now: dreams are worth the risk, and sometimes we should try just for the joy of it.

So I have started writing. Not quite daily at this point but more than ever before. I found the key was to let go a little of my fears and doubts; actually, not to do it in the hope that it would come to anything. Not to do it for anything or anyone. Just to write for me. Because I love it. I love the feeling of creating something that wasn’t in the world before. And when I approached it like that I found that the seeds of things that had been rattling round in my head started to grow. I wrote so many poems I stopped counting. And, even more joyfully, I started to write the story that has been in my mind for more years than I care to count.

I had an outline, written and rewritten over several years, and I had an opening to the story, which I wrote about a year ago, but nothing more. Because I stopped. I even liked what I had written, although it needed some editing, but in spite of my outline I just didn’t feel I knew what the story was, so I abandoned it. It was actually my students, and a couple of lovely friends, who encouraged me to pick it back up.

I run a creative writing class at the secondary school where I work (I know, a writer who doesn’t write teaching other people how to write…the irony is not lost on me) and for some time now my students have been asking to read something I had written. So one day I decided to be brave (and yes, it did take a lot of courage to do this – teens are nothing if not direct and, sometimes, brutal with their feedback) and share that opening chapter with them. I did it as part of a session on how to constructively critique other people’s work.

Firstly, I read some of their pieces and, as I always do, gave them feedback, this time trying to demonstrate my thought process: What did I really like and why? Tell them. What did I think had potential and how could it be developed? Tell them and make suggestions. What didn’t feel right in their narrative, why and what might make it feel better? Tell them but also enquire about their choices (as this might change the reading of it), explain why it didn’t feel quite right for me and work in partnership to see how it could be developed. It’s a lovely, collaborative process and the young writers I work with are so full of enthusiasm for writing, and so want to improve, that they are genuinely open to it and take on board feedback with interest and commitment to developing themselves, and their skills as writers. It’s inspirational to watch.

Next came the part where I had to be brave. Enthusiastic though they were to receive their own constructive criticism, they are often reluctant to give it to each other, usually deferring to me to do that part, purely because their class mates are also their friends and they were afraid of hurting one another’s feelings. Hence why I offered my work up as a guinea pig. I did tell a little white lie and assured them I was very used to receiving feedback of all kinds, positive and negative (not the case because I rarely share my writing other than what I post on here) and told them they should be very honest. I promised them my feelings would not be hurt if they didn’t like it (mostly true) and that their honest opinion was more important to me as a writer than any false praise they might want to give me. That was the truth. With a deep (internal) breath I gave them my opening chapter and pretended not to wait on tenter hooks as they read it.

The first person to finish looked at me and said possibly the best thing I could have been told: “It sounds like you, Miss.”

Now something sounding like me is not necessarily praiseworthy but what that meant to me was that she felt it was authentic. And that IS praiseworthy. Some of my fear fell away. Even if they didn’t like it, whatever I had written was true enough to myself that this student recognised me in it. I hadn’t even known that was important to me until that moment. As others finished reading they said they agreed, one commented that it “read like the colour red” – she couldn’t quite explain what she meant but it felt like a compliment! In fact the compliments came rolling in along with requests for the next chapter, please, and I had to steer them back to our critiquing framework. Flattering though the positive feedback was, I wanted their honest and thought out opinions. I wanted their ideas for improvement. And I got them. Tentatively, at first, but eventually with growing confidence they pointed out turns of phrase that resonated with them and ones that didn’t; they suggested alterations to vocabulary choices; they discussed certain sentence structures and whether they flowed as well as they could; they generally proved themselves to be the perfect first readers of my long locked away opening pages. (Well, not quite the first: my mum read them too.)

I made the alterations they suggested and since then not only have I shown those pages to two other people (both adults this time and one of whom, it turns out, is writing a book of his own – we did a pages swap!) but I also picked the story back up with gusto. I now have nearly ten thousand words of the story that has been tucked away for so long. On top of that, I also got up the courage to submit four of my poems to a publishing house, for consideration for an anthology. I have no idea if anything will come of that but it doesn’t matter, because I did it. I wrote the poems for me and I took the chance to share them. That is enough.

I am under no illusions that I will be the next J.K.Rowling. I have no idea whether any of my work will ever be published. But it turns out that it’s not the publishing that makes you a writer. It’s the writing. Just for the joy of it.

Any writers out there: what’s your work in progress? What stops you writing and how do you get over it?

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Being Emotionally Honest

This week was Mental Health Awareness Week and all week I’ve been wanting and meaning to write something to share with you, my lovely readers. But I’ve had a funny mental health week and have just not quite been in the right frame of mind. I’ve felt edgy, restless and anxious, as if something is bubbling just under my surface. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.

When anxiety starts to prickle like this, I try to acknowledge the feeling. In the past, I used to work hard to ignore it, or would make myself feel guilty about it, which only made things worse. It has taken a surprising amount of effort to reach a point where I can allow myself to just feel what I feel, without judgement. Like much else in life, there always seem to be ‘should’s and ‘must’s crowding in, making me feel bad about my feelings, wants and needs. But by acknowledging the truth of what I’m feeling, without trying to tell myself I should feel something different, I’m far more able to deal with those emotions. This is true of more than just anxiety.

Emotions are human. And as humans we experience a full spectrum. It’s no good trying to repress what might be seen as ‘negative’ emotions. If you feel angry, be angry; if you feel resentful, be resentful; if you feel sad, be sad. These aren’t necessarily pleasant things to feel but feel them we do. If, when one of these emotions crops up, we tell ourselves we shouldn’t be angry, or we should be grateful, or we have no right to be sad, we are denying some of the truth of ourselves. And the real truth is that you can’t force an emotion away. You can pretend. You can try to bury it in falsehood. But that emotion will still be there and, if you let it, it will fester.

Like a festering wound, a festering emotion can make you very ill indeed. You have to let the ‘bad’ stuff out if you ever want to heal. One of the things that I used to worry about a lot was how my emotions might make other people feel. When something or someone made me angry, I didn’t want to be angry with them in case it upset them, especially if that person was someone I loved, who loved me, and who I knew probably didn’t mean to make me angry. When something or someone made me resentful, I didn’t want to behave resentfully towards them, and when something or someone (or often nothing) made me sad, I didn’t want to show that sadness because I thought my privileged life meant I had no right to be sad. But by being so focused on what other people might feel in response I put myself in some really dark and painful places. And the thing is, allowing yourself to feel what you feel isn’t about rubbing it in someone’s face. You don’t have to take the festering wound and smear it on the person who accidentally gave you a paper cut, or whose success distracted you from what you were doing so you accidentally gave yourself one.

It takes a conscious effort but I will now (most of the time) deal with those emotions in one of two ways: I will acknowledge it out loud or in writing, just to myself; or if it’s really eating at me, I will speak to a friend or family member who is outside the situation and, as honestly as I can, explain what I’m feeling. These acknowledgements are usually prefaced with lots of ‘I know I’m really lucky to have X, Y and Z, BUT…’ or ‘I feel like I’m being a bitch/ungrateful/overreacting, BUT…’. With the effort of being honest about my feelings, to someone else in particular, comes the need to qualify that I know I speak from a place of privilege. The process at the moment is still partly one if seeking approval for what I’m feeling, which I hope to move beyond eventually. But this has been a huge step forward for me because I used to keep everything I considered vaguely negative bottled up inside. I would not allow myself to be imperfect in my emotions. I would not allow myself to be human.

What I have found is that once I have acknowledged whatever it is out loud, I either feel better immediately and am able to move on, or it gets me to a place where I can then address the person/situation with a greater degree of honesty and clarity. My feelings will usually have subsided to a point where I can express them in what feels like a reasonable and healthy way. It’s a work in progress and sometimes it still takes me a while to realise I’m letting something fester, but I can feel the difference this has made to my emotional life.

I’m also getting much better at self-care and making time every most days to check in with myself and have a moment of honesty. Some of my favourite ways to do this are by reading, listening to a podcast, taking photographs, writing and journaling. Here’s what that looks like currently:

Reading:

The Self Care Project by Jayne Hardy

Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Circe by Madeline Millar

(I know, I know, four books at once seems a lot. I always tend to have a lot of books on the go because I’m such a mood reader!)

Listening To:

The Happy Place

The Guilty Feminist

Harry Potter and The Sacred Text

The Quibbler

Made of Human

Photographing:

Books

Nature

My dog!

Writing:

Poetry

Blog posts

A young adult fantasy novel…

Journaling:

Quotes

Doodles

Tracking sleep, mood, steps

Daily gratitude

This Mental Health Awareness Week, and beyond, I encourage you to be emotionally honest with yourself, make the time for self care, and help continue the conversation about mental health, whether online, with friends and family, or even with strangers.

What do you think is important for maintaining mental health?

There is Help and Hope

I have started writing this post several times and don’t quite know how to say what I want to say. I have heard and seen too many stories of people struggling with their mental health and not being able to find a way out; too many stories of people for whom the only escape they could see was through taking their own life. My heart breaks and bleeds for these people and their families and friends. I want to help. I’m not sure how. So for now I just want to say if you are suffering you need not suffer alone. If you are hurting there are people who want to try and help you heal. If you are struggling to see any light in the dark, please, please, call out and let someone – anyone, friend or family or stranger or professional – try to help light your way. Even if you feel totally alone, know that there are people who care.

Please don’t suffer in silence. Let in help. Let in hope.

If you’re unsure how or who to ask for help the resources and websites below might be a good place to start. Take care of yourselves and each other, lovely people. 💛

The Blurt Foundation – https://www.blurtitout.org

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

It’s #TimeToTalk Continuing The Conversation

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This is the final post in my 24-posts-in-24-hours series for #TimeToTalk day. Thank you so much to all of you who have popped by to read, like, share and comment; it means a lot to see so many people engaging with this important issue.

#TimeToTalk day is a great opportunity to open up conversations, to draw attention to mental health, and to break down some of the stigma that makes it so difficult to talk honestly. Chances are we will all be affected by mental health issues at some point in our lives, whether they be our own mental health struggles or those of the people close to us, so these are important conversations and ones that could make all the difference to so many people.

It is vital that we make space for open dialogue, not just on #TimeToTalk day but every day. Remember: it’s the little things that can make all the difference; it’s always the right time to start a conversation; no-one is defined by their mental health, but it can have a huge impact on how they live and feel day-to-day; there is always light to be found, even if we can’t find it right now; no-one needs a reason to feel what they feel; we are all beautiful chaos; it’s ok not to be ok; if we speak openly and listen authentically, we can change the world.

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I urge you to continue this conversation beyond today, beyond reading and liking and sharing. I ask you to reach out to the people around you, whether to seek help or offer it. These conversations change lives. And we could all do with knowing we are not alone.

I’d like to leave you with another TED talk, which I found moving and comforting, as it seems, to me, to be a perfect example of the love that lies at the heart of humanity.

What a beautiful thought: “when they could have asked for anything, they all asked for health, happiness, and love”. Let’s do our utmost to give these things to each other. Let’s remember that it’s always #TimeToTalk.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk Recommended Resources – Pacifica

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Pacifica was introduced to me by a friend and it’s a great tool for tracking and monitoring mood and mental health. You can set goals for health, track whether there are any patterns or triggers for fluctuations in your mood, and collect images and thoughts of positive things from throughout your day. There are also built in meditations and reflections for your to access and, on of my favourite parts, community forums where people are engaging in conversations, all over the world, about mental health. There is so much support out there and people are sharing not only personal experiences but are sharing all sorts of interests and passions.

Pacifica can be accessed through an app or web browser and the basic package is free to use but you can also pay to access more content. It might not be for everyone but it’s certainly worth a try and tracking ups and downs can be useful if you are working out the best way to manage your mental health. I encourage you to give it a go.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk Breathing

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I’d like to take a moment to share with you a short and simple breathing exercise which I have found incredibly helpful. We hear often about the importance of breathing and noticing our breath in strategies for dealing with anxiety or panic attacks, but it’s not always clear what exactly that means and we (read I) often make the mistake of thinking that because we breathe all the time this is something we can just ‘do’ without much thought or practise. In reality, for breathing to be helpful in situations of stress or anxiety, it’s more likely to be effective if you’ve practised. A lot. In times of calm. By practising at times when you don’t feel stressed or anxious, you train your body to know the breathing patterns and (I suspect) create an unconscious association with these breathing patterns and a sense of calm.

 

So here it is:

Breathe in slowly for the 5 counts

Hold the breath for two counts

Release the breath slowly for 5 counts

Hold for 2 counts

Repeat

 

Super simple and can be practised anywhere. Try to fill and empty your lungs on each inhalation and exhalation and breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. And practise. Often.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk Emotional Courage

I’ve recently taken to listening to TED talks on my evening walks with our puppy and there’s one that struck me as particularly relevant to the idea of being emotionally honest with both ourselves and others. One that speaks to the importance of conversation and authenticity in maintaining and protecting our mental health, and dealing with mental illness.

Susan David’s “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” is a powerful call to move away from “rigid responses to our emotions” and to acknowledge the legitimacy of all emotions, rather than labelling them ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and suppressing the ones we don’t believe are inherently valuable. She speaks of how “The World Health Organization tells us that depression is now the single leading cause of disability globally” and how “being positive has become a new form of moral correctness”. This is simply unsustainable.

I encourage you to watch/listen to her talk:

 

I love her closing message: “In seeing yourself you are able to see others too.” I think this is so important and so true to the message of #TimeToTalk because it’s not only about opening up honest conversations with others but about being honest and authentic with ourselves as well. If we were all willing and able to do this, imagine what a change we could work in the world.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk, Now

It’s easy to be too busy

Or say

It’s not the right time

To worry that you’ll make it worse

So you accept their fumbled

“Fine.”

It’s hard to find the moment

For hearing truth

And depth

But really we’re just finding excuses

To keep ourselves

Deaf

To all the pain that gathers

When people can’t speak

Truth

And have to keep it bottled up

For fear of hurting

You

But what happens when you leave it?

When you let the silence

Grow?

What if their pain is your pain too

But not asking means

You’ll never

Know?

So let’s all breathe together

Hold hands and take

A dive

Into conversation

With neighbours

Strangers

Friends

And lovers

Because

Now

Is The Time.

  • JH

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk Recommended Reads – Anxiety Journal

This is just a quick little recommendation, as I’ve only just come across it myself but thought it still seemed worth a share.

The Anxiety Journal is actually something my lovely husband found and suggested to me, and I’m so glad he did. It is another beautifully presented book, very simply formatted, with lots of white space, which makes it a lovely, calming book to flick through.

It provides a combination of insightful quotes, thoughtful reflections and exercises, and simple illustrations. I have found it the perfect book to end the day with. Just before bed I can sit and open it to any page and use what’s printed there to help me take stock, reflect on the day, and deal with any anxiety or panic that may have built up. Combined with a scented candle, a warm drink, and some quiet music, it makes for a lovely bedtime routine.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.

It’s #TimeToTalk Switching Off

Sometimes, all is noise:

Busy

Bustling

Chaos.

The mad rush from here to

There.

The happy buzz,

The anxious struggle,

The beeping, bleeping, never ending

Asks and answers,

Frets and favours,

Coffee percolating,

Email answering,

Frantic searching,

Forgot what I was doing,

Hamster-wheeling,

Plate spinning

Noise.

And sometimes

There is

Silence.

  • JH

It seems a little ironic to talk about switching off when I’m typing a blog post on my phone (thanks to a broken laptop) which will be read online and shared through social media, but being switched on and plugged in all the time is not good for us. It can in fact be really damaging to our mental health. We are caught in a constant onslaught of exposure to anything and everything. Bad news, images of perfection, and unrealistic expectations are everywhere. It’s enough to make anyone feel inadequate and exhausted.

Being plugged in all the time also prevents us from really engaging with the people around us. Looking around a crowded train carriage on the way into town or even around a restaurant on a Friday night, you see people everywhere staring at screens. Don’t get me wrong, I love my screens and technology as much as the next person, and I’m guilty of checking my phone more than I need to, but sometimes it really is nice to step out of the digital world we’re so caught up in and take a moment to enjoy the reality around us.

So set yourself a challenge to unplug for a while, even just an hour, and start a conversation with someone. A real conversation. It’s time to talk.

***

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.

The Samaritans – http://www.samaritans.org

Mind – http://www.mind.org.uk

Young Minds – http://www.youngminds.org.uk

Papyrus (prevention of young suicide) – https://www.papyrus-uk.org

Self Harm UK – https://www.selfharm.co.uk

Time to Change – http://www.time-to-change.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness – http://www.rethink.org

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – https://www.afsp.org

Please do not struggle alone.