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WELCOME TO BOTTOMSVILLE

Other than archaeologists, no-one willingly digs a deep, dank hole in the hope of finding treasure. When we find ourselves free falling towards the bottom it’s usually because we’ve wandered into a dark place in our minds, and on landing we grub around in the soil blaming everyone and everything for our misfortune.  It’s easy to claim the universe is conspiring against us. Actually, the universe doesn’t give a fig. 

We can shout in the hope that someone will hear us and come to the rescue. We can cry but that only brings temporary relief. We can kick and scream and get really angry but that leaves us more frustrated.  Or, we can surrender to our fate.

Warren Buffet said, “The most important thing to do if you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.”  I would say, put the shovel down and spend that precious, quiet time applying a fresh approach the problem. 

These holes represent facets of our lives where we have made errors of judgement: financial, legal, health, work and relationship being the most common. We can see them as negative and a reflection of failure but if we expend all our energy flailing about and beating ourselves up, there’s none left to ponder on what the hole might have to teach us. Might there be some hidden treasure that would have lain discovered had we not hit rock bottom? 

It’s frightening down there, alone in the dark and we might be in some pain but in order to rise to the surface we need to stop resisting and do some work on ourselves, no matter how distressing.  Firstly, see the pain as a wake-up call for change. Something in your world isn’t right and hasn’t been for some time yet maybe you’ve turned your face away hoping it will sort itself out. We all do that at times.

Holes are metaphors for avoidance. Now is the moment to face the foe. Let’s say your demon is debt but you keep on shopping to alleviate the anxiety. While the walls of the hole are shielding you from distractions, you can mentally come to terms with this self-destructive behaviour and outline steps towards a solution. Small wins are more motivating than giant strides as they create confidence and a feeling of self-worth. 

To be successful requires digging deep into your heart to unlock the origin of your behaviour. Continuing with the example of debt and shopping, maybe it stems from being bullied at school for not having a decent pair of trainers. We go to any lengths to rid ourselves of the feelings of shame and poor self -worth that accompany these situations and if that means reckless spending, so be it. It’s irrational but makes emotional sense. 

 The real work starts when we are plunged back into a murky past to excavate those painful feelings and lay them out on the surface for examination. This is when having the right kind of support is invaluable.

 The last time I paid an unsolicited visit to Bottomsville was when my business hit a brick wall. After much soul searching I decided it was time to wrap it up and move onto something new. For a year, I was angry. There were no shiny beads or bits of interesting pottery in my trench but after a while I spotted a tiny shard of glass twinkling in the mud. It spoke to me.   You are not your career. You are an individual with plenty more to offer. Help one person and you help the world.

Be like the archaeologist. Get off your bottom!  See that hole as a place of treasure – of wonder. That is your life. Prepare to be filled with awe as you reclaim that discarded bit of you and integrate it in your life in a meaningful way. 

It doesn’t mean you won’t fall into another hole but next time you might peer down with interest and walk round it.

This is what I’d write on my post card from Bottomsville. Didn’t want to come but so glad I stopped by. 

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CUTTING A PATH THROUGH PTSD

The term, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has usually been reserved for survivors of war, plane crashes or other devastating events most of us are unlikely to experience. According to www.ptsduk.org this distressing condition is a memory processing error caused by a traumatic event. It now extends to anything that we, personally, experience as trauma even if others process the facts and feelings differently. It maybe something that happens to you directly or as a witness to an event. It can even happen to highly trained first responders.

I’d like to tell you about my experience of PTSD which goes back to 1996. My then husband insisted that I, and my young daughters, went to Iran to visit his family. His father was sick and frail, his mother deeply depressed as she missed her only son who would be needed to take on the role of head of the family in due course. My husband had been in the UK for twenty years as a student, an engineer and then as the owner of his own software business. 

He’d been unsettled for many years following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 but had made a reasonable life for himself, juggling visits home with adjusting to a Western lifestyle.
We arrived at his parents’ home in the middle of an oppressively hot summer. I’d forgotten how restrictive women’s lives were under the religious regime but being an adaptable sort I got on with it, drew on my coping skills and adopting a positive attitude. Three weeks wasn’t that long, I told myself. 
As the days passed, I sensed an undercurrent of secretiveness running through the immediate family. They’d stop talking when I appeared (I spoke the language fairly well) or they’d leave me behind when they went off for the day with the children.

If I wanted to get through this trying period it meant keeping the peace so I bottled up all the fear and frustration. Being a foreigner in Iran wasn’t safe and I’d heard horrendous stories of unexplained imprisonments for violating the dress code or what the revolutionary guard considered to be inappropriate behaviour.
One lunchtime the family were seated at the table, picking at food and casting furtive glances at each other.

‘We’re not going home,’ said my husband. ‘This is home now.’

Panic gushed through my gut into my throat with such force I thought I was going to choke. My stomach churned like a concrete mixer. I felt my legs trembling under the table. My daughters’ stricken faces turned to me, silently begging me to do something.
‘We have to,’ I said, trying to remain calm. ‘At least to sell our house and say goodbye to people.’ I’ve always been in control in a crisis. It’s like the body shuts down and the brain operates independently of emotion.

My husband smashed his fist onto the table. ‘I will go back alone and you will stay here.’ You can imagine the terror we felt.

It was a long battle to persuade him to return to the UK. As soon as the plane landed, I called my solicitor. Divorce proceedings with a prohibitive steps order to stop him from taking the children out of the country buzzed into action. The immediate feeling was relief and for a number of years after I focused on that feeling. The divorce was dangerous as he threatened us on a daily basis. Police protection was put in place for a while until my husband was forced to leave the country. I never felt safe but I carried on running my business and my life, putting all feelings into the deep freeze.

One winter’s night, I was catapulted out of bed by my heart banging against my ribcage. Terrible visions of being held in Iran, in a cellar of the house, flooded my mind. I tried to squeeze them out by shutting my eyes tightly but it was as if all those terrors I’d harboured about effectively being held hostage had broken out of my unconscious and like demons were on a rampage of torment.

The doctor diagnosed depression and anxiety and offered medication but it didn’t help with the flashbacks and recurrent nightmares. I had several kinds of therapy to help process the events to disconnect past from present and although they dampened down the worst of the symptoms, it didn’t stop that loop of film that kicked in when my resistance was low.
The slightest noise would have me leaping out of bed to double check windows and doors. Hypervigilance is a common symptom of all kinds of PTSD. I sealed up the letterbox convinced he or one of his family had sneaked into the country to burn down my house. Security was tightened as much as possible but even the police inferred my fears were irrational given the circumstances of his departure and the fact there’d been no contact.

It was a chance conversation with a psychiatric nursing friend of my father’s which pointed me to a therapist specialising in delayed trauma. I was told that only twenty percent of people seek help for PTSD because their condition hadn’t been properly diagnosed. The clusters of symptoms could describe any manner of mental health conditions but as we worked with the flashbacks and intrusive thoughts using Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment for several months, the symptoms receded and I began to regain control of my mind.
As an author I found journaling to be particularly helpful, especially writing short pieces in the third person. It created distance and objectivity, depersonalising some of the horror.

My current work in process is a memoir – From Revolution to Recovery. A Pathway to Peace and Healing. I don’t believe that time heals everything and from my long trek through the forest of hidden mines that is PTSD, I’ve learned you never know what’s going to blow up next. Real healing for me is about letting go of control. Knowing that I will cope with whatever happens.
Following the wisdom of the Stoic philosophers has brought me huge relief. Their Art of Acquiescence is about letting fate decide or going with the flow. I have found that as in grief, PTSD is linked to loss and after the shock, denial, anger, bargaining and depression, acceptance is the final stage of healing.

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Is Writing Cathartic?

  • Published in Writing

Much depends on what you’re writing, your intended audience and why you’re doing it. Some of us feel such a compulsion to express our thoughts, ideas, feelings and visions in the written word that a day without tapping out a few hundred words is like going without our beverage of choice.

Does that imply writing is a drug? In a way I suppose it is but a healthy one. If you are overwhelmed by unprocessed feelings then keeping a journal is one way of making sense of them and it provides a reference point for when you feel better. I’m not a diarist, partly because I no longer write legibly by hand but I am a list maker and someone who likes to jot as the very act of seeing words appear before my eyes helps alleviate stress and tension.

Back to my original question. What does catharsis actually mean?  Providing psychological relief through the open expression of strong emotions; causing catharsis. Like tears.

When I wrote The Cruelty of Lambs and more recently my new novel, The Future Can’t Wait, I experienced catharsis by the letting go of anger and hurt through my characters. It allowed me to pour everything out then stand back and assess their responses to some terrible situations nobody wants to find themselves facing. Some of this was definitely an outpouring of my subconscious and there were times I had to stop writing because despite it being fiction I could relate personally to some of the events and I know other people could too. Some reviewers described The Cruelty of Lambs a painful read. It was meant to be because only by getting under the skin of people who have personal experience of a situation can we find empathy with them.

I think it’s empowering to incorporate a difficult period in your life in your novel even if you don’t think it’s very much – you know the argument- well people have had it worse than me. Readers are often looking for ways of handling difficult periods in their own life and can be inspired when they see your suffering character finally find relief and hope.

I devour psychological thrillers like I do my morning cornflakes – greedily and left eyeing up more! The fact that someone faces grave danger, comes face to face with their deepest fears, biggest nightmare or suddenly wakes up to the fact the way they are being treated really isn’t normal or right can resonate with most of us. Ask any novelist if there is something of them in their books – a broken heart, failed marriage, teenage angst etc and they are most likely to say ‘ well a bit maybe.’ When pushed they will also tell you it was a relief, better than therapy and it has helped them find closure. That’s certainly true of writing both of my novels.

I wrote The Cruelty of Lambs during another bout of depression. Instead of ruminating on past injustices or traumatic thoughts, I channelled them onto the screen which helped give them shape, order and a semblance of objectivity. We write because we want to make sense of the world even if it’s through fun children’s books, a How-to guide or a personal journal.

The memoir is the ultimate in writing for catharsis I think. We take a period in time, usually something that was challenging at the time and write our way through it. The experience can evoke old feelings about that time which become easier to process the more time passes. In some cases, memoirs are written for family alone, as a record of the period but many memoirists want to share their experience for the benefit of others.

Diving into a dark, skeleton- filled pit isn’t for the faint hearted.  Don’t write painful stuff if it’s going to trigger unhealed trauma. I waited 15 years before writing my first novel after being diagnosed with ptsd.  Have someone close at hand you can talk to about what you’ve written or are about to write. Think carefully about whether you want to go public or not. The misery memoirs and true life stories are still very popular from A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer to Damaged by Cathy Glass. Writing this kind of book provides a healing for the writer but it can cause tremendous pain for whole families, relatives, friends and even unsuspecting strangers once the book hits the stores and moreover the press.

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Can't Sleep? Join the Club!

An imaginative novel, Café Insomnia by bestselling author, Mark Capell, has helped me cope with another period of sleeplessness over the past few days. Twenty five year old Justin Brook opens an all-night café for those who can’t sleep. Strange things happens in the shadow hours just as they do in your head when you are jolted awake at 2.21 am for weeks on end.

When I was active, raising children, running a business, a home and doing the red-eye run to New York on a regular basis, I had no difficulty in sinking into blissful slumber as soon as the clock struck nine. I’ve always been an early to bed and early to rise kind of girl. I think the rot set in when my girls were teenagers. Half an ear strained for the phone, one eye on the clock as it ticked through the early hours before a ‘Mum, no taxis and I’m cold,’ broke through my semi consciousness.

You would think that once they left home I would relish long lavender baths, cups of hot chocolate a good book and hours of delicious sleep. If only.

Instead I suffer from chronic periods of insomnia which are taking a toll on my energy, my mood and no doubt my health. I’ve tried out all the recommended tips: lavender, camomile tea (yuk) some herbal stuff that smells like cheesy feet, a brisk walk before bed ( lethal in my case), stretching, turning off the radio, a boring book, getting up to clean the kitchen floor or God forbid to do some ironing. Nothing works.

A doctor told me said, ‘You can’t sleep because you’re depressed and you’re depressed because you can’t sleep.’ Helpful. Not. Depression and anxiety can cause early morning waking and I do experience periods of both. Illness, trauma, fear and any powerful emotion can break a sleep pattern up to the point it becomes a nightmare (sorry)  to correct it. The more you worry about getting to sleep the harder is it.

Some changes to my routine have helped a bit. These are my top three. (These don’t necessarily apply to shift workers or people with broken sleep because of babies or demanding relatives who also can’t sleep and ring you for a chat.)

  1. Saying to myself it doesn’t matter if I don’t sleep tonight. It’s about taking the pressure off the need to get to sleep by a certain time. Ok so you will feel scratchy the next morning and shattered the next night but by taking the pressure off to ‘perform’ as it were can induce relaxation which is the key to sleep.
  2. Listening to a meditation tape. Ten minutes of shut-eye and a few stretches while your mind floats off to Fantasy Island where your horrible boss is eaten by a shark. Maybe. I don’t have any boss, fortunately.
  3. Creating a suitable sleeping environment. I always have my window open a crack even in the winter to keep the air circulating. Black out blinds or curtains are a great help in the long, light nights. The biggest change you can make in my opinion is turning off all gadgets, especially with screens, an hour before bed time. I don’t even have mine in the room. Quiet, soothing activities prepare the mind and body for a restful night.

I do get up in the early hours if I’m struggling and no I don’t clean the kitchen floor. I write a hundred words as I’m doing now. It’s amazing how the eyes just want to close when work is in sight.

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