Not just one week: my 5 prompts for making mental health matter throughout the year

It’s been a few weeks since my last post. I am choosing not to berate myself for temporarily slipping out of the happy routine of regular writing, whilst attributing all blame for the pause very firmly at the door of the dusty chaos that is our current domestic situation. (We are in the midst of building work.) Dusty chaos really doesn’t suit my uber-fondness (ahem, intense need) for order and “just so-ness.”

What has spurred me into settling down to write now – even whilst covered in dust – was the slight time-sensitive element to this post. The ideas had been percolating in my head over several days, and finally last Sunday (22nd May) whilst I was singing at choir, they came to a point of “making sense” (to me at least) and, at last, formed the kernels of a blog post. Ideally I would have written this post sooner, but I didn’t and that’s ok, because here it is now.

Preface over (I do love a good preface).

Mental Health Awareness Week 2016 ran from May 16th to 22nd. This is an annual week of events, campaigning and awareness-raising about the importance of talking about, supporting, and enabling positive mental health, and continuing the amazing progress already starting to happen in ending the stigma associated with mental health issues. The theme of this year’s MHAW was relationships, because lots of evidence shows that strong, good quality relationships – at work, at home, with family, friends, within our communities – are fundamental to our health and wellbeing. (For more about why the Mental Health Foundation is campaigning for a greater recognition of the importance of relationships for good mental health, have a look here.)

Thanks to the brilliant energy and momentum which have come to surround MHAW, between May 16th and May 22nd my Twitter feed was buzzing about all sorts of events, workplace initiatives, and many inspiring stories about mental health – why it’s important we talk about it and, even more importantly, do something about it. That buzz felt really pretty powerful, and I encountered it in ‘real life’ too. Various conversations I was part of or heard about during MHAW were very exciting – in their openness, optimism, and their potential for connecting people and ideas on all things wellbeing.

This all got me thinking – “So one week is great. It’s really important. But ultimately the point is that we all do more of this kind of thing more often and, well, ideally most of the time. Recognising the importance of mental health – and cultivating a society where that’s possible – needs to become ‘the way we do things: the way we are.

So I set myself a little challenge, to choose five ‘moments’ (or even just fairly banal things that happened in the humdrum of my daily routine) during MHAW 2016 which were powerful in reminding me of why nourishing our mental health is so important. The idea is that I’ll use these 5 moments as little prompts throughout the year, long after MHAW has finished, as reminders of the importance of looking after my own and others’ wellbeing. Here are my five moments:

  • I was thrilled to IMG_6202be invited to speak at a MHAW event at my workplace about wellbeing and mental health. I talked about my experiences of multiple miscarriages, and how they affected me physically and psychologically. I also talked about how being open about what I’ve gone through – and feeling supported to do this at work – has been a huge part of my recovery. I was honoured to speak alongside my lovely friend, Eve Canavan, who told her amazing story about experiencing post-partum psychosis, her recovery, and how she’s now using her experiences to campaign for better support for perinatal mental health. You can read Eve’s wonderful blog here.Talking about my miscarriages (especially to a large group at work) isn’t always easy, but I know in my heart it’s the right thing to do, for me anyway. As I’ve written about before, my experiences of miscarriage – of loss and grief and finding hope and optimism after what I’ve gone through – are a huge part of my ‘story’. The reason I wanted to speak at the MHAW event at work was precisely because being open about my experiences is fundamental to my wellbeing (it’s why I started a blog), and being well means I’m happy and productive at work. Simple, see?! I realise that not everyone wants or needs to be so open about pretty personal stuff. But for those of us who do want to be open, I think it’s important that our workplaces make this possible, and I’m so grateful that mine does. Being able to bring our whole selves to work, and all the possibilities and skills and talent we bring with us, is so important. For more on this theme, I highly recommend this fab blog post by Clare Moriarty, a senior UK civil servant, about showing vulnerability as a leader.

 

  • On the Thursday of MHAW, I went on a magical train journey with my 3-year-old side-kick. ‘What’s so special about a train journey?’ I hear you say. Well, leaving aside the fact that I actually love trains, there was something about this train journey that was different to usual: I chose to take the slow train. Yes, as in I decided that getting to our destination by the fastest possible route wasn’t a priority. We took the slow road. We travelled from Redhill to Guildford on the stopping service, through some of the loveliest, leafiest parts of Surrey. And it was blissful – green, lush, rolling hills, sleepy stations, yielding an utterly enthralled 3 year-old. So lovely was it that, after our catch-up with some very dear friends in Guildford, we chose to get the slow train on the return leg too. Don’t get me wrong – I was also thrilled to arrive home to busy, noisy, London (I love London). But that train journey was a lovely reminder of the power of being in the moment, of watching my sidekick marvelling with wonder as she took in the beautiful greenery of spring whilst humming along to the sound of the train running along the tracks, and of giving myself permission to opt out of the fast route every now and then.

 

  • One of the most positive consequences of having multiple miscarriages (and there was more than one positive, believe it or not!) was discovering the therapeutic power of connecting to others with similar experiences. I have written before about my ‘RMC ladies’ – a group of women I met online who have all experienced recurrent miscarriage. They have been a constant presence and amazing source of support over the last few months (all the more amazing given I’ve not actually met them, so I’m cheating slightly to call this one of my ‘five moments’). What justifies the mention here is that during MHAW I confirmed plans to actually meet up with some of my RMC ladies. In real life! I am very excited about this. As a former super-sceptic about meeting people through social media, I feel very lucky to have met and befriended a bunch of amazingly strong, positive, wise and supportive women, and I’m excited to get to know them in person. All hail t’internet!

 

  • I suspect I’m rather late to the party in discovering the gem that is Elizabeth Gilbert, and her lovely book ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’ Somehow, and with not-a-little serendipity, it was during MHAW that I encountered her work at last. I can’t profess to be an expert on it yet, but I was stopped in my tracks and filled with joyful resolve when I listened to her TED talk on creativity, success and failure. As someone who has long had a tendency towards setting myself ridiculous standards, this talk really resonated with me. By my reading, Elizabeth’s thesis is that to release ourselves from the shackles of judging ourselves relentlessly on our relative success or failure, we need to find and remain connected to the one thing that most ignites our heart (this is my paraphrase of her wise words!). To quote just some of her brilliant words from the TED talk: “Find your way back home again… (Find) the best, worthiest thing that you love most, and then build your house on top of it…. Diligence and devotion and respect and reverence. Whatever the task is that love is calling from you next.” The talk was very powerful in reminding me that life can actually be quite simple (notwithstanding all its busyness) – if we know what matters most in our hearts, and if through the busyness, we find enough space for what matters to us most.

 

  • Lastly and probably most frivolously, during MHAW I realised anew that I love colourful things and I will seek them out wherever they are to be found, because they make me smile. Admittedly, in this I am influenced quite a lot by my 3 year-old sidekick, amongst whose favourite things are: her pink sandals, her favourite fruity ice-lolly, her yellow lemon top, purple jelly for breakfast (why not, just occasionally), her box of colouring pencils, and (my own favourite) convincing her father to buy Mummy beautiful flowers ‘just because Mummy loves flowers.’ Simple.

IMG_6131
Those are my ‘five moments‘. If the ‘five moments’ idea resonates with you, I’d love to hear what yours would be. Get in touch 0 either comment below or email me lkosullivan [at] googlemail.com

For more information about Mental Health Awareness Week, the work of the Mental Health Foundation, and ways to look after your mental health, take a look here

In praise of odd socks: a lesson from my 3-year old

I love those moments in the humdrum of everyday life that happily catch you by surprise, where you go “Ah….now I see!” or “Wow…that thing people say about not sweating the small stuff. Now I get it.”

Through the various trials and tribulations of the last year, I’m lucky that I’ve had quite a few of those ‘a-ha’ moments: moments that have prompted small, but important and lasting changes in how I approach things, which altogether make for a sense of calm and contentment which I’ve not had in quite a while. And for my most favourite of all those moments and lessons, I have my 3-year old to thank.

My daughter just doesn’t “do” matching socks. She always insists on woddsocksearing two different socks, and no amount of persuasion or bribery – those trustiest tools of any parent’s toolkit – will convince her otherwise. (I have no idea where she got her stubborn tendencies from, by the way.) Her logic is as follows: “I have two feet, Mummy. I like this-a sock and this-a sock. So I can wear a pink one on this-a foot and a penguin sock on this-a foot!” And actually, when you think about it, and momentarily leave aside everything that your adult brain is telling you about the etiquette of sock-wearing, she has a point.

Why wear just one colour sock when you can wear two different colours. Life is better in colour, surely?

There will come a day when my little girl will start to realise that the world is telling her – in subtle and not so subtle ways – that there are things that are done ‘comme il faut’ as the French would put it; this is the way, you must conform, and odd socks really just aren’t the done thing. Learning this lesson is, to an extent, pretty important – it’s part of her developing and adapting, and becoming an active, happy, engaged member of society. A member of a family, a classroom, a sports team, a choir (no pressure, darling), a workplace. And so it goes on.

I’m not in any rush for that day to come. For now, I will encourage my little lady with all my heart to embrace her joyous and stubborn insistence that odd socks are lovely. So if people “in the world” look at her (or more likely, look at me) and think “Goodness, what sort of mother are you letting your child wear non-matching socks in public?” – well that’s ok. I bear you no ill will. I wish you a very happy day over in your corner of the world, really I do. Over here in my little corner, odd socks are actually just fine.

More than fine – odd socks are beautiful: in their simplicity and quiet insistence that different is lovely, and that to a 3-year old, anything is possible – even wearing odd socks with pink sandals on a freezing day in January. And if the odd socks turn a few heads, and get a few quizzical looks (which they do), that doesn’t matter. Most things aren’t all that important – one of the things that really is important (so my daughter has reminded me) is finding little things that bring colour and smiles to the humdrum of everyday life. Like colourful socks.

 

In praise of the predictable: the warm joy of routine

I am a creature of habit. A lover of structure. A big fan of familiarity. I have worn the same perfume for 14 years, and I’m never going to change it. (I’ve tried. Really I have. Nothing comes close to my favourite scent). In the past I’ve tended to see my fondness for things staying the same as a negative trait, or at least certainly something that doesn’t exactly set me up for embracing the unknown. And as I’ve already written about in my first blog post, it was the experience of various big things not going to plan in 2015 – finding ways of making peace with that and discovering new contentment from acknowledging not everything goes to plan – that led me to set up this blog.

Interestingly enough, having spent a long time beating myself up for my tendencies towards the predictable, one of the happy consequences of the last few months has been my renewed respect for the little, every day things that do stay the same. Especially when the bigger stuff of life goes awry (such as experiencing multiple miscarriages), I think there is real, healing power in everyday things that are familiar, that help bring that sense of ‘all is well’ or more correctly ‘I am well, happy, resilient, able to take on whatever comes my way, partly because of the happy rhythm of simple, routine things.”

Here are five of my favourite reassuringly mundane pick-me-ups:

  1. The lovely guy in the station café who knows exactly how I like my morning coffee. I don’t need to ask. He sees me coming and my coffee is ready one minute later. What a legend.
  2. The quiet, slow humming noise of the automated security gates which greet me as I arrive at work, and the familar, friendly faces I encounter at the other side as I make my way upstairs to my desk.
  3. My number at choir – 20 is my folder (though I have no actual proprietorial claim over it!). It’s always in the same place, and I reach for it in the same sequence as I walk through the vestry en route to the choir stalls for rehearsal.
  4. Knowing that when I open my handbag everything will be in its proper place, and that when I reach to a particular corner, my lip balm will be where I expect to find it. (Yes, there will also be old baby wipes, dried satsuma peel, crayon fragments, or whatever other toddler-related detritus has made its way in there. Annoying as it is when my hand gets covered in mouldy mushy banana, it always makes me smile wryly when I think of my daughter leaving “little presents for you, Mummy.”)
  5. Driving over a bridge to cross the Thames heading south. Home to South London. My heart always jumps a little, especially at nighttime when the lights sparkle along the river. There are many lovely bridges, but my favourite is Wandsworth Bridge – because it’s on my route to/from choir so I know all the bumps on the road. Weird, I know.

Of course, on their own these fairly trivial things aren’t an instant fix for dealing with whatever big curveballs life throws. But I think there can be something very meaningful about the humdrum of daily routine and minutiae for easing stress and building resilience – because of the comforting, hope-giving certainty of knowing there are some things that don’t change, even when all is else is in flux. Of course there are other (even more important) constants too – family, good friends, nourishing food, fresh air and exercise and the rest. But little, mundane daily prompts that help me feel centred, and feel like me, have their place too.

Know then thyself: my ‘wellbeing break’ top 10

It’s fair to say I’ve always had a tendency to be a bit of a stress pot. The annus horribilis that was 2015, and the way it affected my wellbeing and (at times) my self-confidence, made me realise I needed to take steps to make small changes to how I manage stress when it lands.

Here are my favourite 10 simple, easy, wholesome pleasures I’ve come to rely on for what I’ve started to call my ‘wellbeing breaks’ – the little things that help me feel mindful, self-aware, relaxed, and ready to take on whatever a busy day (or a stressful situation) might hold. Such things are inevitably quite personal – what works for me won’t be everyone’s cup of hot lemon – but maybe they’ll prompt ideas about what your go-to wellbeing breaks might be:

  1. A train journey, spent mainly looking out the window at the loveliness. If the train is delayed, I make an extra effort with my window reverie, noticing the trees/people/whatever London landmark happens to be passing, to minimise the stress of worrying about whatever meeting I’m late for – focussing on enjoying the moment, which is what I can control (Southern Railway, I cannot control…sadly).
  2. Podcasts! A recent discovery for me. Where have you been all my life?! These are especially lovely when paired with (1).
  3. The Desert Island Discs archive. Bit of a cheat as it’s a subset of (2) but it merits its own slot. What a treasure chest of insights – into the castaways, into bygone eras, and into how people construct narratives to make sense of their experiences.
  4. Walking slowly. This makes me more aware of my breathing, and slows it down. Double win.
  5. Singing along loudly to Adele in the car, with my toddler joining in with the spontaneous, unanalysing joy that only a child knows. Precious.
  6. Watching the world go by – the rhythm of life – from the window of a café, hands wrapped round a cup of good coffee. Or a cup of hot lemon-y water, which is how I always start my day.
  7. Not rushing the washing (I’ll write a separate blog post post all about this) – hanging clothes up on the washing line in the fresh (ahem, ‘London fresh’) air, in my garden.
  8. Writing a letter – even a short one – to a dear old friend. It always feels lovely.
  9. Making soup, especially with colourful veggies (I like carrot, sweet potato and parsnip) and lovely warming spices (turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger).
  10. Acupuncture. Ok, so not exactly simple and easy as I’m not an acupuncturist (obv). But I love, love acupuncture and it has been especially powerful for me in the last few months as I recovered from my most recent miscarriage. I have acupuncture with the lovely Lilja Katanka at a wonderful haven of peace and tranquility in Crystal Palace called The Little Escape – I heartily recommend both Lilja and the Little Escape for any readers in South London looking for a bit of TLC in the form of holistic, alternative therapies in a really lovely setting.