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.

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Action and reaction [short story]

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My feet got tangled and I went tumbling down.


I had just parked the car and was walking to my favourite coffee shop this morning when something got hold of my foot. I turned my head down but before I could see what was restricting my movements I realised I was tumbling down. I probably fell over in two seconds but it felt like I was falling in slow motion and I could foresee the damage of the impeding impact. Images of my upcoming half-marathon flashed before my eyes. No training today that’s for sure. I went down on my left knee first,—no, not my knee—then the right, then my wrists swung forward to protect my face and finally the rest of my body hit the unprepared surface. I wanted to get up but the forces of gravity and pain were keeping my body stuck to the pavement.

“Are you all right?” I heard worried voices hovering above me. The good samaritans that came to my rescue grabbed my arms and helped me get up. “Are you okay?” someone asked again. I was a bit disoriented and dizzy from the sudden jerk of my head, all I could muster was “I hope so”. They held my arm and walked me inside the nearby hairdresser.

“Please have a seat while I get some water” said a concerned hairdresser. I took a seat next to the window and a deep breath, “what a way the start the day” I joked, finally starting to come to my senses. “If you can laugh about it you might still have a good day ahead” the hairdresser said passing me a glass of water.

“Ouch” I felt a sting when the broken skin touched the water droplets outside the cold glass. I turned my palms up and saw blood and grit from the floor. I looked at my legs to assess the damage and noticed wet spots halfway down the black running pants I was wearing. I tried to roll them up but they were too tight, I had to wait the check my knees when I got home. I sipped the water slowly trying to digest how this happened to me today.

“There was something stuck to my feet,” I said putting the empty glass on the coffee table.

“You don’t know what it was?” asked the hairdresser.

“No, but I’ll find out now,” I said trying to rise up from my seat but my knees ached and trembled and my bottom landed back on the chair. I tried again, this time I placed both hands at the edge of the chair,  pushed down through my arms and began straightening my legs. A sharp pain traveled from my head to toes. That’s the moment I realised I might not be able to run the race. I didn’t just fall, I had a fall. When you fall you get up again and move on with your business but a fall is a beast of another kind, it is an unprovoked attack, a serendipitous act of violence that finds you unprepared and inflicts grievous bodily harm. And it knocked me down really bad.

The hairdresser followed me to the crime scene for our forensic investigation. We found narrow straps of white plastic scattered around the parking. These are the straps used to bundle magazines and stack them in piles. Someone, maybe a delivery person, must have slided the magazines out and mindlessly tossed the used straps. “There are garbage bins everywhere, why couldn’t he or she have walked ten metres to dispose the plastic straps properly?” I squeezed my eyebrows together.

“People can be so thoughtless” the hairdresser sighed.

“If I were an elderly person I’d be in hospital with broken bones” I continued.

“I know,” she said with a tone of concern, “I’ll throw the straps in the bin so no one else gets hurt.” She said walking to the trashcan.

“Thanks heaps for rescuing me today.” I waved to the hairdresser and started limping to the car. I opened the door, squeezed through the opening with half-bent knees and started the engine. My legs felt heavy, it was tricky to operate the pedals and with every new movement I discovered a new pain. Eventually I got home and rushed to the freezer to get the ice packs. I put them in my sore knees, ah, finally a bit of relief.

Every action has a reaction—the pressure of the cold bags of ice in my skin made me think of Newton’s 3rd law of physics. Newton wasn’t referring to human behaviour but I kept thinking of how the actions of the delivery person resulted in pain and suffering to another human being. I’m sure he or she didn’t intend to harm anyone but being unaware of your behaviour is just as bad. I wriggled in the couch trying to find a conformable spot. One of the greatest crimes of our civilisation is the offence of mindlessness, that’s why there is so much pain and suffering in the world. If we were conscious of the consequences of our actions, we would be better equipped to change our behaviour. But we are too busy or preoccupied with our everyday lives and keep on going on auto-pilot, we don’t pause to ponder.

I noticed that with every new trip to the kitchen to replace the ice packs the pain worsened so I decided it was time to inspect my knees and apply some antiseptic cream on the wounds. But there was an obstacle on my way, the stairs. I had to go upstairs to get the first aid kit and a new pair of pants. I grabbed the rails on both sides and swung my legs forward, one at a time and with every step images of people whose physical abilities do not correspond with the demands of their environment flashed in my mind. I felt privileged I was only carrying a temporarily broken body.

By school pick up time my legs were as stiff and heavy as iron bars and I started to move like a robot to keep my legs as straight as I could. The drive to school is literally painfully slow but luckily most of the route is within school zones so the other cars are going slow too. When I get there I have to explain my robot moves to the parents at the gate and one of the mothers asked: “are you going to sue the council?” Hum, I hadn’t thought of that.

“No,” I replied with a pause, “I don’t even know who the tosser was.”

“They might have caught the fall on CC TV” she insisted.

“Good point,” I reply, “but I don’t want to put my energy on a litigation.” The glares of disappointment from the parents made me feel like justifying my position so I said “I might send a letter to the council though, to alert them to be more vigilant.”

“But they’re more likely to do something about it they feel the pain with their pockets.” stressed another mother.

“That may be true,” I said slowly trying to calculate the impact of my words, I don’t like the blame and sue culture that has developed in our society but I didn’t want to offend anyone so I carefully added as limped over eggs shells on the way to the car park: “but I don’t think every accident should be a case for litigation.” They didn’t say anything back and continued to walk at normal pace so I was left behind wondering if because they found me too slow or too righteous.

On my way home I was in so much pain I was thinking of driving to a medical centre but I pulled over at the chemist instead and asked the pharmacist for her opinion. I rolled up my pants and she frowned. “Looks quite nasty.” Drops of sweat run down my shoulders, maybe I broke something. “But I don’t think you broke anything,” she said as if reading my mind, “I don’t think you would have been able to drive here otherwise.” Phew. She recommended an anti-inflammatory tablet and a visit to the doctor next morning “if you don’t wake up feeling better.”

As the day progressed the pain got stronger and my knees stiffer and I started to get cranky at the possibility of breaking my tradition of joining the Sydney running festival. I’ve been doing the half-marathon for five years straight, now thanks to that mindless delivery guy I might have to give it a miss.

I was picturing the fall over and over in my head and what I could have done differently. I was cursing whoever tossed the rubbish in the parking. I wanted to stomp to my room and start the day over but instead I had to gently swing my hips from side to side to move my legs, sit in the edge of my bed and carefully lay down and place ice packs in both knees.

But staring alone at the ceiling I started to think about how I was reacting to the situation. I was joining the mindless mob. It’s not the end of the world if I missed the race and being angry at the world was not going to make me recover faster. I was not able to run but I was capable of taking a step back and turn off the auto-pilot. Instead of continuing ruminating my story, I put my headphones on and played some soft music. It did not take away the pain but by the time I got up to change the ice packs I was counting my blessings, the accident could have been much worse.

Chaotic day, got better, then… you tell me.

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I know you’ve had days like this too. Days sent to try you. In such days you just want to go back to bed and start over. These days for me tend to begin like a nightmare, tormenting me in the middle of the night, like when insomnia comes for a visit. But this time it was my youngster whispering in my ear “bad dream, bad dream”. It was cold  and I had no energy to take him back to where he came from so I made a slight sideway move and he hopped on between my husband and I and snuggles under my wings. Luckily I managed to get back to sleep. But not for long.

“My throat hurts, I can’t sleep.” I get up and go on a blind expedition to the bathroom to get the medicine box. Before I reach the power switch, ouch! When a 60Kg person steps on a mega strength Lego piece it hurt but 1am it hurts even more. When the evil ridges dig into the ball of my foot I scream so loud the dog wakes up— my husband surprisingly manages to sleep through it all. “Here darling, have a lozenge.” I walk my eldest to his bedroom and wait for him to fall asleep. Back in my room, the youngest took possession of every inch of my side of the bed so I retire to his. I bring my phone with me, I still hope I will wake up at 5:30am to go for a run. But child with sore throat still woke me up another two times before the alarm takes me from my slumber. Just 10 more minutes, I beg the universe.

When I finally woke up there was no time for exercise and it felt like I had already ran a marathon. I quickly got dressed and I rushed out of the house to catch the train before the rest of the tribe got up demanding my attention. My husband was in charge today but if the kids see me around they find a way to occupy me. I was excited that besides all the chaos of the night I was still catching an early train and thus would get a seat. But as soon as I reached the station and got my Opal card from my wallet I spotted the crispy bank notes I should have left in the kitchen bench for the cleaner.

I literally ran home and back to the station again, limping because of the Lego nugget I crushed. Magically I got a seat on the train. Ok, time for some meditation and gather energy for the the day ahead. I try to pull my headphones from my handbag but they are stuck. I pull harder and harder and two kiwi fruit fly out of the bag and go rolling down the carriage. I man next to me starts laughing, I look at him and smile —one’s got to laugh of his tragedies… I see passengers lifting their feet and looking down. To avoid further embarrassment I let go of the fruit.

Eventually I arrived at the office and put my porridge in the microwave while I recounted the morning to a workmate. The porridge overflows. “Not your luckiest day” my friend says. I wondered what more could go wrong today. Thankfully not much. The rest of the day ran smoothly, well, depending in your point of view. When I got home at night I learnt that the Liberals had officially won the federal election. I’ll let you be the judge.

In bed with the enemy –

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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.

An overdose of wellbeing

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Today I had too much of a good thing

Exhausted. That’s how I’m feeling after a day of wellness. And I didn’t even manage to squeeze in a work out. Today I woke up with a wellness obsession. This happens to me from time to time, normally after I read a convincing article or book or speak to someone whose life has been transformed by a new diet. Like when I went crazy about fortifying my gut wall with good bacteria and ended up horribly constipated and three kilos lighter (for those who don’t know me I’m already skinny enough), thanks to my brother and his fermentation fever and the living creatures he was keeping in the fridge.

I think of myself as a health conscious woman. I exercise, I meditate and I eat my fruit and veggies. But for some inexplicable reason today I went to great lengths to have a naturally healthy day. This morning I did my normal meditation as soon as I got up – so far so good – but then, instead of my regular Saturday run, I got down on the floor for 20 minutes of yoga. Inversions! They filled my body with the anticipatory delight of how great this day was going to turn out.

Maybe it was the extra oxygen in my brain but suddenly it was borne in upon me that I had not used the juicer in a long time. That warranted a trip to the supermarket with a list of ingredients I had quickly Googled. And as I was at the shops, why not visit the health food store too, a good wellness warrior must have a pack of organic coconut flour in the pantry.

Two hours later I got back home and spread my plentiful harvest in the kitchen bench. Oh God, what have I done! There’s more foliage here than in the Amazon forest. It took me over two hours to wash, sort and pack my fruit and vegetables. By then, half the day was gone and the kids were hovering over the pantry. I offered them organic corn chips while I whipped up a quinoa and smoked salmon salad for a late lunch. They weren’t impressed. For desert I sliced fruit – victory, no processed sugar today!

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Colours of health

Of course, let’s not forget the wellbeing of the dog. Another hour quickly passed as I cooked his meat and veggies casserole and divided it in individual portions to freeze. Snoopy is the only family member that seems to appreciate my fits of wellness.

Then it was time for afternoon tea, or shall I say, afternoon juice. For the kids I squeezed ‘nothing but 10 apples’ as this is the Nudie juice I buy for them every now and then. When the juice is homemade though, the audience never shows the same enthusiasm. “It doesn’t taste the same mum, can’t you just get a normal juice?”. The jug is still in the fridge.

For me this was the moment I had anticipated since morning: my kale juice, yeah! Tons of nutrition in a single glass. It didn’t taste as bad as I expected and it did feel like I was nourishing my body and soul. I felt invigorated and thought I could repeat the dose tomorrow. This was before I went back to the kitchen to clean up the mess. Another hour of fun.

I finally sit down to do my writing and it’s 5:30pm and I’m wondering what to do with the lentils I left soaking all afternoon and I don’t think I’ll have time to make the coconut muffins. Man, I was inspired, but as usual I packed too much for one day. Unfortunately, I was carried away by my enthusiasm and wasn’t very mindful of my behaviours. On the flip side, I have a supply of healthy food that should fuel the family for a week and tonight I should sleep like a rock – and good quality sleep, you know, is vital for wellbeing.

Tomorrow I’ll continue my quest of finding the right balance.

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.

 

 

Missed the train and the distraction

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I felt the vibration. I could have waited until I got on the train. It was 5:58am and still dark but the light from my phone made it easy to find the ticket in my messy handbag.  As I scanned the ticket in the sensor I watched a train stop in the opposite platform. Luckily it was’t my train, I still had a few seconds, I thought. I looked at the phone screen and there was a Whatsapp message from a dear friend. Next time I turned my eyes to the platform my train was closing its door. How did this happen? I was at the platform and neither saw the train coming nor the other passengers hopping on–well, there was only a handful of them.

I was flabbergasted and for a few moments tried to reconstruct those few seconds in which I was totally disconnected from the real world. I’d never experienced something like that before. I know it sounds silly, it’s just a train but it was a surreal sensation – I felt like those seconds had not existed, that time had stopped. Weird.

This experience made me feel really cranky, I literally ran from home to the station and just got there on time. If it wasn’t for that Whatsapp vibration I wouldn’t have wasted 15 minutes waiting for the next train. Anyway, I decided to do a bit of mindfulness meditation. I’ve been spreading myself thin again and my meditation practice always suffer. As I had to wait I might as well use this time wisely.

In that desert and silent platform I could now hear the birds and the wind blowing the autumn leaves. I sat down on the lonesome green bench, put my headphones on and did 10 minutes of Headspace. At the end I was actually grateful to the universe that I missed my train. I felt calmer and centred and more positive about the busy day ahead.

I cannot let my meditation lapse. It’s not the first time I get in trouble in my commute because my attention has drifted somewhere else. Last time it happened, about a month ago, I got on the wrong train and had to get out in the middle of nowhere and catch a taxi back to the children’s school. Of course I was late and the rest of the day was was totally out of sync.

This morning it was only 10 minutes of piece of mind but I’m feeling energised and wanting  another dose before going to bed. I’ve set an alert in the mindfulness app for 9pm and am looking forward to the vibration.

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.

 

Day of silence: nowhere to go, nothing to do, no one to please

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The collective energy of 50 people doing nothing is powerful. We sat still this Sunday in the beautiful grounds of Kincoppal Rose Bay for a day of mindfulness. Fifty people in silence – sitting, walking, listening to the sound of nature  and just being. No one checking their phones or rushing to get somewhere or even saying thank you. Silence can be liberating.

My mind is usually as busy as an amusement park, always looking for distraction and entertainment, so a day like today, where focus on the present moment reigns, is very refreshing. After the session I’m clam and grounded and feeling blessed that I had this opportunity to share in a day of nothing with so many.

It’s reassuring to see that there are so many people trying to find an avenue back to the present moment amidst the chaos that life is in the 21st century. At the end of the day when we had the opportunity to discuss the experience, the comments revolved around the same theme: finding time and space to just be. We are all in the same boat.

Like everyone at attends a retreat, today I’ve renewed my commitment to stop rushing towards the future. But as I walk home now after a day of bliss, I know I will open the door to the chaos of kids, dinner, lunch boxes and work – my natural environment. The challenge is to bring awareness to these ordinary moments, which make up most of the moments of our lives, and be present to them.  It’s much easier to be calm and content when you get to lie down in your yoga mat. I’m putting the welcome mat to the ordinary tonight, I hope I’ll succeed and I hope that you will too.

 

 

My Journey with Mindfulness 

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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.