Painting the full picture

I was lying across the couch with a book trying to decide whether to read or take a nap, when mum appeared from the kitchen with a Tupperware container full of colour pencils.

“That time of the day.” She announced smiling at me.

It was 3:30 pm and it was hot and I thought it was the perfect time for a nap, so I put the book on the floor and made myself more comfortable on the couch. But mum wasn’t talking about nap time. She walked over and sat at the dinning table and placed the container alongside two stacks of books laying in front of her. Her skinny, pale hand scattered the books on the table – books with black outlines of animals, flowers, patterns and cupcakes. She picked the title Floral Designs. She loves flowers and talk about flowers but there was no talking that afternoon. She was ready to fill the blank spaces with colours.

Mum flicked through the pages then put the book aside and started inspecting the tips of her colourful tools. She pulled a pencil sharpener from the Tupperware container and shaved away the worn surface of three pencils: “red, green and yellow” she said out loud. Looked like she was now ready to start her project, to get lost in the world of colouring in.

I’m all for meditation but have no patience to sit still to colour in mindfulness colouring books, or any books for that matter. I think I may waste precious time unable to relax, trying to figure out which colours to use and how to combine them. But mum has been colouring in these books for months. Her collection just keeps growing. She says it’s calming and that she likes watching the colour slowly spread across the page and the surprise element of creating something unexpected and pretty.

I realised I wasn’t going to fall sleep anymore so I sat down and moved to the corner of the couch to observe mum more closely. I saw that she selected the green pencil and, in slow, repetitive movements started to fill the stencilled page. She was focused and the room was quiet. All I could hear was the hypnotic scratching sound of pencil lead on paper. She paused from time to time swap pencils or turn the pages.

Mum smiles at everyone she meets and I saw her smiling at what was appearing underneath the colours. So I got up and sat beside her to take a peep at her creations.

She was creating beautiful patterns and I congratulated her on her creativity but what really caught my attention was that most of the patterns were unfinished. She was moving on to the next object without finishing the previous one. I flicked through the pages in the other books and most of them had not been completed. It didn’t make sense to me to leave the images partially done.

“Mum, why don’t you finish a pattern before you move to the next one?”

“That’s funny,” she frowned, “my friend asked me the same question.”

“Your pages will be even more beautiful if you complete them.”

“I don’t know,” she continued without looking at me, “I don’t feel like I need to finish them.” She turned the page.

Oh no. I could immediately feel drops of sweat running down my back. At the moment I came to the conclusion that mum, who is 74 and had recently been diagnosed with dementia, was losing the ability to see the full picture. She was going downhill much faster than I expected. I knew I was catastrophising. I wasn’t sure if the page hoping really indicated a progression of the disease but my Hypochondriac brain tends to resort to the worst case scenario when it comes to health issues. I grabbed a pencil and the book closest to me and started colouring in to calm down. I needed to find my focus again.

I just sat there in silence with mum, following the lines with my left hand no end in sight, no destination and I didn’t know if it was the repetitive strokes but I could sense I was starting to relax. When I completed a couple of patterns I looked at mum, content in her world of patterns and colours. Her back was straight and her neck leaning slightly forward. She was losing her hearing and her memory, but she looked content and poised. Just then I realised that it didn’t matter if she can see the full picture or not. What she sees makes her happy and that’s enough. I felt like I was learning to get the full picture. These books can be useful after all.

Why I keep writing

wpg-anthology

Fellow writers publishing North Shore Pieces


I have always written a bit of copy as part of my marketing jobs but I never saw myself as a writer. I used to think of writers as eccentrics endowed with a genetic ability and immense creative power. They sat in somber rooms with a pen and a notepad with bent corners or a rusty Remington typewriter and popped out words for hours, inspired by some supernatural force. And in my mind the end result of their creative process would always be an original story in which the depth of their talent shined through.

Then one day I realised that writers are grown not born. I started to write about my observations of life and its many transitions and the things I don’t quite understand. I wasn’t confident in my ability as a writer and was only using the mighty pen to make sense of life in times of trouble and awe. But little by little I noticed my writing getting stronger and the words flowing more naturally.

You see, I was using writing as therapy. My thoughts often travel at the speed of light and they pass through my brain without giving me the chance to fully interpret and reflect on them. Sometimes I only notice that they touched me when it’s too late and I’m there covered with the cosmic dust of anxiety. In these moments the pen can be my best friend as it helps me watch as the stars collide and particles of reason evaporate from my awareness. With a notepad in hand many times I’ve been able to translate the sensorial explosion into emotions and rational thought and bring myself safely back to earth. I don’t think I was particularly good at writing but it became a habit, and like it is with any passion or hobby, I wanted to learn more and improve at it. So I decided to take my writing more seriously and joined a writers group (WPG – Write Publish, Grow).

When I joined the group I thought I’d only have the capacity to write about things that existed in the real world so non-fiction was a genre that made sense to me. I’m naturally drawn to facts, reason and reality as these elements save me from the tricks my mind plays on me. But being exposed to the group helped me appreciate other genres too and now I’m starting to explore life in short stories, combining fiction and reality in my narratives.

My journey with the mighty pen has been an amazing experience. Not in my weirdest dreams I contemplated the idea of writing a book, let alone a book in English, my second language, but here I am less than a year from joining WPG publishing an anthology with my fellow group members. The book will be available in November and it’s a testament that writers are a product of hard work, passion and practice. I feel confident my writing will continue to improve and I hope my stories will encourage others to have a go at sharing theirs. We are all storytellers capable to inspiring and challenging our fellow human beings and the more with write the more beautiful and impactful our stories become. All we have to do is write. Just keep writing.

R U OK?

article-wellbeing

Today is R U OK Day – sharing my story


I’m ok now, thanks for asking, but eight years ago I wasn’t. That was when I heard of my father’s passing on the other side of the planet and realised that the world wasn’t like I understood it. What someone believes makes up who they are as a person—I felt disoriented. Only when I was able to look at the content of my beliefs and accept the new reality, I started to find my north.

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience with anxiety but it takes a lot of mental energy to visit the past. While I gather energy and time to write, I’ll share here a story I wrote for the WellBeing magazine. Hope it will help someone feel ok.

Story: Calm beyond the storm

Not sure how to ask someone if they are ok? See the R U OK? website for guidance.

In bed with the enemy –

rosana-yoga

Tick, tock, I open my eyes and see dark—the enemy has come to his night visit again. I turn to my phone to check the time, anxiety settling in, crossing my fingers in hope it’s close to sunrise, which means I won’t be tossing and turning in bed for too long. Disappointed, I take a few deep breaths in and out trying to convince one hundred billion brain cells that 1AM is no time for a party. I continue with the pranayama breathing, I don’t know for how long, but my neurones are fired up.

I try all my repertoire of techniques for insomnia and wait for sleep to take me but nothing happens. I open my eyes again, the dark seems darker. I don’t feel tired but have no strength to get up and do something else—I cling to the hope that sleep will descend. Sometimes it does. Other times I fall into that state between sleep and wakefulness. That’s when I dream that I’m dozing off but my mind breaks the stillness of the moment and I’m again starring at the ceiling

This time I don’t dare to check the time or I’ll start to panic—how am I going to cope with the day ahead when my brain only had three hours of rest?! Paranoia starts to creep in, anticipating the non-alcoholic hangover. But after 18 months of suffering on and off from insomnia I’ve learnt the drill, I know that heroically I’ll survive the next day with the help of one or two doses of coffee. So, I surrender. I accept defeat and let go of the struggle with my mind. I just lie in bed with my eyes shut, doing a few rounds of meditation to keep the anxiety of the moment at bay.

When the dark is no longer as dark, I get up. Tonight I’ll sleep better, I tell myself. I change into my workout clothes and promise to run an extra kilometre hoping this might add a few hours to my sleep—although I know this equation doesn’t work. I open the door and see the sun rising in the horizon and I start running from the troubles of my life. The pounding on the pavement seems to finally calm my brain cells.

What I see from down here

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I see a lot of people living with fear, including me. But our culture tells us that this is a weakness of our personalities, we have to be strong and say no to fear to be a winner: “Say I have no fear, be a hero”. I’ve tried to be a hero. It didn’t work. For people living with anxiety or depression, being optimistic, reciting positive affirmations or trying to be the resilient person we want to be does not change our diagnose. What has worked for me was to accept that to have fear is part of being human and can be managed but not all fears are created equal – some minds create nameless, unreasoning, unjustified distress that can be paralysing and insurmountable if professional help doesn’t come to the rescue.

When your neurotransmitters are not doing their job well and emotions have highjacked your brain they create fears that would be unthinkable for a ‘normal’ person. For example, a person who does not have a health anxiety won’t feel as threatened by the fact that 1 in 2 Australian men and 1 in 3 Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85

And it can get worse. If you have a generalised anxiety, you don’t even need a trigger or a cause, you simply live in a constant state of worry and fear. You feel scared and you know that what you are feeling is irrational but you cannot help it and putting a brave face does not make dread go away.

When I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety eight years ago, fear of dying of cancer ruled my life. For three months I had this all-consuming terror that stayed with me every waking moment and sometimes sleeping moments too as I woke up in the middle of the night in panic.

What I’ve learnt from my experience is that once you understand what anxiety is you can use a combination of tools to manage how to live with your fears. In my case, it made sense to start with medication to make the neurotransmitters do their work properly and reduce the chemical imbalance and the war raging in my brain. Once my mind became a bit calmer I was able to  incorporate therapy, meditation and yoga as part of my tool kit.

Unfortunately, no amount of coping mechanisms can change the fact no one is immune to health and mental illnesses and other tragedies of life. So, fear still pokes its ugly head. When that happens I pull the welcome mat (as well as the yoga mat) and let it exist. The simple fact of acknowledging it makes me feel better. I experienced this when my sister was being treated for breast cancer. Fear walked by my side during that period but thankfully I wasn’t paralysed by it. But if it wasn’t for the teachings of mindfulness meditation I’m not sure I would have coped as well.

I didn’t get to where I am overnight and some days are easier to manage than others. Sometimes I don’t even think I have anxiety but other times it’s clear that I do. I started sharing my story so that people leaving with fear know that they are not alone and that there is treatment.

I hope your fears are not so great but if they are seek help, the journey is not easy and it won’t turn you into a fearless super hero – but you will come out on the other side as a much stronger human being.

 

 

How much awareness is too much?

I’ve been practicing mindfulness for almost three years. Well, truth be told I have lapsed here and there, but for the last few months, I have managed to maintain some form of meditation everyday. Mindfulness meditation has helped me in many areas, but most notably it has changed my relationship with my anxiety. No, meditation hasn’t provided a miracle cure – I’ve read of people who swear they have overcome clinical depression and anxiety with meditation but I’m yet to experience that myself. But meditation has helped me manage the anxious thoughts better and gave me some control over how to respond.

A byproduct of the practice of mindfulness is that I became more aware and compassionate with the suffering that goes on in the world. The flip side to that is that sometimes I can feel overwhelmed – there is too much suffering and my resources to help are limited. So one area that I thought I could help was by becoming a vegetarian – at least I would not be contributing to the suffering of animals. I always found it hard to justify our meat eating habits and eventually I made a decision to no longer eat meat.

I’ve been abstaining from meat for over seven months* and although it requires more planning and I end up having to cook meat for the rest of the family more often than not, I’m happy with my decision.  During this process I also learnt that meat consumption contributes heavily to our carbon footprint – so an added bonus to the vegetarian diet.

The problem was that changing my diet made me more aware of the link between what we eat and our health. I did some research and I read a lot about the benefits of a gluten-free, sugar-free, low carb diet, rich in pro and prebiotics and how this diet contributes to a healthier gut. I’ve found the research around the topic quite compelling, specially around the correlation between the health of your gut and your mental health. So I decided to give it a try, removing gluten and sugar from my diet. I was hoping go on this diet for two weeks but only lasted 10 days.

Unfortunately, in 10 days I did not see any benefits – I was feeling weak and tired, sometimes grumpy and more constipated than I normally get. I understand 10 days is not enough to consider this diet a fail but I got really discouraged. I thought I would see or feel something positive after 10 days to keep me going. Maybe I should have planned more (gluten and sugar at the same time, what was I thinking?) or spoke with a doctor before even considering it.

But I guess the bottom line for me is that it got me thinking if I am becoming too mindful of too many things. There is a limit to how many causes one can embrace, how many fights one can fight and how many problems one can solve. It does not matter how much mindfulness I practice, I cannot add one extra minute to my day – 1440 minutes is all I have and I already have a lot in my plate.

I can’t help being aware of what’s happening around me. I still want to be compassionate. I still want to be there for my friends and help those I can. But this experience was just another reminder that I need to be careful and not bite more that I can chew. And maybe a bit of gluten or sugar is something I can swallow after all.

 

* Confession: I’ve had a bit of fish – as I’m lactose intolerant, sometimes I end up left with very little options, specially when eating out.

 

My Journey with Mindfulness 

Mindfulness journey

Only my thoughts with me on the train. They kept me company for a couple of stations and then it was only me and the silence. Beautiful silence. There was the rhythmic beat of the train’s engine, the metal wheels rubbing against the rail and the drivers’ announcements but I tuned in to my heart’s beat and the movements of my breathing. I had a moment of mindfulness and felt immense peace.

My journey with mindfulness started about four years ago. My initial introduction was through books, followed by a 8-week MBSR program. I’ve lapsed here and there but in the last few months my meditation practice has gained momentum again. I joined the mindfulness summit in October and it was very energising and I’m committed to keep the momentum going.

Mindfulness has a very strong impact on my anxiety. When I manage to maintain the practice I feel a much lower level of agitation in my mind. The problem is to keep the practice going consistently. You skip a few days and, at least for me, it’s very hard to pick up where you left off. But I feel I’m heading in the right direction now. I’ve embarked on trip to go nowhere, a trip to the present moment.