Monday, February 7, 2011

BBC Radio 4 - In Pursuit of Happiness

Here's a chance to listen to a really interesting - and not uncritical - discussion of wellbeing, aired last Friday on Radio 4. This will only be 'live' for a few more days, so listen whilst you can...
In Pursuit of Happiness

Friday, February 4, 2011

Untangling the Twists

My dad died when I was eight, and my second dad died just before I turned eleven. My mum re-married and I had another step-dad by the time I was thirteen - but, although I didn't hate him, I couldn't bear to let him get near me emotionally, as I was convinced that he would die too... so I pulled up the metaphorical drawbridge and hid behind my fists... 

The day I returned to school after my second dad died I went up to the biggest kid in the playground and started laying into him like a snarling whirlwind. A teacher separated us and slapped this big, hulking innocent round the face, saying, "pick on someone your own size". My mummy always reminded me that I was the spit of her dad - a self-obsessed abusive bastard of a man. She told me that all of her children were a disappointment to her - especially me. It was a relief when I was kicked out at of 'home' in my late teens, as being homeless was the better option. 

In this piece I'm going to share a little bit of how I begin to make sense of all that now that my life has a sense of meaning and purpose. Learning is also about living NOW and learning to love oneself...

I have a torn photo of me as a toddler gently stroking a sparrow with my pudgy hand. All too soon this soft hand, expressing a gentle touch, would become a pulverising fist. I loved creatures which flew - birds and butterflies. I was entranced by their flight, their freedom; I knew these things to be miraculous, and I was compelled to reach out to them. 
By the age of twelve the boy with a gentle touch was priming mouse-traps with bread to trap and maim birds. In my twisted way I thought that hurting something I loved would confirm the fact that I really was bad. It was, looking back, an act of quiet desperation. But, for all this rage and destructiveness and self loathing, I was still a child; albeit, a child without a childhood.
Baby Finger

One of my poems about this period in my life-course ends with the line - "... and I was only as young as I was allowed to be." Here are some memories from way back then... 
" Whack! I swung round and, as a reflex, landed a piss-baller of punch into his solar plexus. I knocked him unconscious, and it was just him and me. So he was lying flat-out, kind of twitching and convulsing. He came round after a little while. I helped him up, and he shook the tweetie birds out of his thick skull."

That's a description of me decking a P.E. teacher. I was about fourteen at the time. I was the youngest brother from a family of boxers. I exercised obsessively: between 500-1000 sit-ups and press-ups a day; 45 minutes skipping; 5 miles at least five days a week. Raw eggs and milk and white horse oils for my aching muscles. I was in permanent training... training, that is, to run away from myself. 
Here are another couple of glimpses of me back then...
" When I got time to say it, I'd calmly whisper to opponents,
'What you need to know, is that I don't care if I live or die.'
I'd always be looking into their eyes as I spoke. This would give me an advantage, as they would then tend to guard their head, and would be particularly vulnerable to body-punches."
I had no peace of mind - especially after the age of twelve. I couldn't sleep, and 'cause I had to share a bedroom with my brothers, I'd sit on the bog and read a dictionary [remarkably, I've still got it, all torn and tattered!]. You see, I felt that I didn't have enough words to ARTiculate myself. If I got more words in my head, then perhaps I'd be able to start speaking and stop hiding behind my fists. Possibly then I'd become truer to myself, because in some vague - and terrifying way - I knew that my public persona was a sham. 

Inside, I felt numb and alone and scared. My mum was constantly telling me that I was shit, and was forever pointing out all the things I couldn't do. The pressure was always on my brothers and sister to demonstrate 'loyalty' to her. We were actively encouraged to grass each other up, and I seemed to get the fag end of the deal, because I was struggling to be alive. During this period - in some ways my darkest days - I felt an incredible discontinuity between the inner world of my head, and the outer world around me. It was like I needed a social decompression chamber in order to move between these different worlds."

I recently got back in touch with my best mate from these times. He sent me a list of over 50 kids I'd smashed up (detatched retina; broken ribs; K.O.; K.O etc). Where I grew up we didn't play fight. 
I can't help wondering who that was back then. Who the hell was that boy? He's me, and he's not me. I've got the words from that dictionary, but I have none of the fury any more. That's not a bad exchange I suppose. Through a lot of hard work I have made myself better, and it has allowed me to become the silly-wise-foolish-shy show-off I am today.
So here I am now; I still can't sleep, and I'm using the words handed to me by that scared, hyper-sensitive "psycho-boy" to try and untangle our story. Here I am, a First Class graduate who teaches history but wasn't allowed to do an History O-level (GCSE in new money) because I was deemed to be too thick. 

To some extent I'm resigned to the fact that I'll always be recovering from those dayze. However, life is good for me now - and, although I sometimes look back, this is the time I would rather live in. I am surrounded by Love, and am grateful for that. It didn't just happen that way either. My process of recovery was assisted by some very good people along the way who believed in me when I most definitely didn't believe in myself. I'll also take some credit for making some good choices. 

Nowadays, I chose to use the sometimes painful experiences of my life course to inform my 'empathy bank'. I try and make something good and positive from all of those tangled twists. Things can get better.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Emotional Resilience

Copywrite: Francesca Arnold, 2010
In the past I have been guilty of perhaps underplaying the value of emotional resilience. Following the research in the Foresight report, 'Mental Capital and Wellbeing', we can picture our minds as being like bank accounts in the following sense...
Living in ways which enhance our wellbeing means that we are banking mental health assets; assets which, when the set-backs life deals hit us, can be called upon and 'spent'. In other words, in hard times mental capital allows us to cope, and in better times it allows us to flourish.

I am mindful of this because of a simple everyday incident which I experienced earlier today. I was in a supermarket, buying some milk. There was an unattended push-chair in the aisle. I calculated that I would just about be able to get through the gap, so I sidled my way past. As I went I inadvertently nudged the pram with my bag. In response, the mother of the baby in the pram began to shout at me. 

A few years ago I would have been devastated by this incident. It would have rolled around, being replayed in a hideous squirming loop in my head for ages after. However, having been using the Five Ways and 'banking' that mental capital I was emotionally resilient enough to deal with this incident calmly. 

Instead of panicking I walked back towards the irate parent and apologised thus:
"I'm so sorry. You see, I sometimes forget how fat I've become and I simply miscalculated the space available to me. Is your baby okay?" 

Imagining myself into her place, I can quite understand her anger at some seemingly indifferent lunk-head barging his way past her baby. Fair enough. I'm glad to say that the baby was fine, and the mother was placated. Indeed, we even shared a smile at that point. And, of course, there are so many other alternative futures which might have been played out if I had chosen, say, to give her verbals back. In this instance we both walked away with our brain chemistry restored and even - dare I say! - enhanced. 

These daily interactions are the stuff of which our lives and societies are made from. Our choices in how we conduct ourselves are important. When it comes to nurturing wellbeing my advice is, act locally. Sometimes it doesn't take a lot to change things for the better.

Thanks for taking the time to visit me here. 


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Monday, April 26, 2010

I felt well being a Human Library Book

Today I had the opportunity to be a 'book' for the Human Library . A Human Library is, "a mobile library set up as a space for dialogue and interaction. Visitors to the Human Library are given the opportunity to speak informally with “people on loan”; this latter group being extremely varied in age, sex and cultural background" [see Human].

On this occasion, I was talking about my journey from long term illness back to paid employment; and from the 'white knuckle ride' I experienced initially, returning to work with a memory impairment, to my present circumstances, where I feel much more comfortable, both, in my job and in my skin. 

I was 'loaned' three times and had conversations with folk who otherwise would have remained perfect strangers. My 'Readers' couldn't have known this, but prior to the session I was experiencing one of my periodic 'lows'; a 'condition' which sometimes creeps up on me, riddling me with self-doubt. 

However, I can tell you, this experience was transformative for me. Only three conversation later and I was flourishing. In the language of the 5 Ways to Wellbeing, I was using three of the 5 wellbeing 'ways' - namely, give, keep learning and connect

The Human Library isn't only a wonderfully 'organic' way to challenge prejudice and stereotypes, it is also a very powerful wellbeing 'tool' - powerful, in a good way, for everyone who takes part (and I speak advisedly, having been a borrower in previous events). There is a lot of power in creating a conversation; in making contact and communicating your story, and sharing time with others. 

If you are interested in being involved in a Human Library event, contact 
Oz Osbourne or Nick Little.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Smiling Despite Your Self

When my youngest daughter was a little pin-dot she would sometimes get an attack of the glums; an attack so powerfully projected and pervasive that it would bring the whole household 

One of the wellbeing ways I used to lift her - and us! - was to create poems and songs which would make her smile despite herself. Here's one such creation from that time:

Take care my bunny
Please mind that lip
It's pouting so far now
You might go and trip
Beware the Gloomy
The Gloomy is glum
And so are the rest of us
When the Gloomy is done
Dark are the shadows
Where Gloomy has been
Beware the Gloomy
This Gloomy is mean
Sad little Gloomy
Covered in gloom
Moaning and groaning
Alone in her room
Come on out Gloomy
into the sun
There's fun to be had
This day's just
Shamelessly derivative, inspired as it was by the poetry of Colin McNaughton. Nevertheless, it really did work, and I remain very fond of this poem. Growing up shouldn't mean that we can't be playful. Of course, wellbeing isn't about being relentlessly happy twenty four seven (heaven forbid). We experience a range of moods, and our highs are defined in relation to our lows. However, it is about being aware of ways through which we can increase our emotional resilience, and improve our general sense of wellbeing. 
Beware the gloomy!

Colin Howey <*((((><(

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Valuing Each Other

I have been working with a group of unemployed people who have just completed an eight week Adult Education employability skills course called 'Your Aim Your Gain'. In a conversation, the tutor and I agreed that the group had bonded really well, and that it seemed such a shame that - due to the realities of funding - the course would be coming to an end. We decided, therefore, to encourage the students to form their own informal network and stay in touch. I am really pleased that this suggestion was met with enthusiasm, and that they intend to meet in the city centre on Thursday mornings.

Connecting is absolutely vital for people who are unemployed. Not only is the experience often so isolating and disempowering, it is also that work is a vital source of identity and status for people. The group have been working to develop skills to identify skills and aptitude in their peers, and I am hopeful that this process will continue between them. I certainly know that most jobs I've got have been as a result of someone else seeing that I'd be good at it, whereas I'd only see potential barriers. The ability of people to value each other, and give others status is really important.

I have also talked about the Five Ways to Wellbeing with this group, and they were all very interested. I think that if you give folk a practical and understandable set of principles (a 'toolkit') then they may be able to develop the personal resources to develop emotional resilience, even during these hard times.

Colin Howey <*((((><(

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ready to go again...

Well, it has been a while since I last posted anything here. I have been ill recently and needed to take some time out. However, I am feeling better now and I'm ready to continue working to promote wellbeing.

During my recuperation I travelled with a good friend of mine and spent some time exploring some of Norfolk's wonderful medieval churches. I found that taking the time to spend quality time like this was really restorative. You might be interested to read the following piece I wrote about an incident with a Wren trapped in a church...
Birds with Broken Wings