12/09/2016

The Homework Conundrum

I've been very me-centric here for a while, so let me just very quickly explain what has been happening with school homework here. The boys, year 1 and 4 (ages 7 and 10) have been complaining more and more about homework. They don't have very much to do but it has become a very big issue in our house, with far more time spent arguing and cajoling than actually working. I've done a little bit of reading (Louise Porter is my go-to on all things child development related. I find her approach makes a kind of visceral sense to me and works for family).

It came to a point where I re-read Louise Porter on homework and decided we had to change something for everyone's sanity. I talked to other parents and realised that I have too much going on in my life to take this up with the department of education or the school, but I could address it individually for my kids with the teachers. I don't like singling my kids out - part of the reason they go to school is to learn to be herd animals - but this was causing significant disharmony, so first I spoke to the kids about what parts of homework they thought were valuable (spelling words and writing - reading doesn't count because it's one of our leisure activities) and talked to them about the idea of 'opting them out' of homework. We agreed it would be a good plan. At this stage they have the option to do any homework they want to do and need to do the big annual projects. They don't get out of spelling tests or any other regular classwork. The other big change is they need to help more around the house. More home work less homework and it is now their responsibility to cook dinner on Monday night. It has started well, and although they require lots of help they are getting the hang of the idea, and that cooking dinner includes planning, shopping and cleaning up, which makes my heart sing.

I spoke to their teachers, who were surprised but supportive and I followed it up with an email. I'm going to include the email here (names etc redacted) in case I can inspire others to have a full and frank discussion about homework in lower primary school and potentially provide a template for them to opt out too, if homework is causing trouble. Significant thanks to my dear friend Tanya for her copy editing genius!

Dear Jxxx and Txxx
Thanks for meeting with me - this is just a follow up to that conversation. Firstly, let me thank you both for working with our kids this year. Axxx and Kxxx have been extremely happy with their classes and they both have great respect for you, their teachers. I feel like you’ve really heard our concerns that at present, homework is detrimental to their learning and causing distress for both boys at home. Both Sxxx and I feel strongly about this, and he’s asked me to make it clear that this email comes from us both.
Accordingly, we’ve discussed homework with the children and the two things they feel are valuable are reading and spelling words. They will also be expected to continue with any tests and work done by the other kids. They will also participate in big projects ('all about me', dioramas etc). As a family, we’ve decided to make any other homework optional and focus on more holistic learning opportunities at home instead. For example, they will need to cook dinner one night per week. My hope is that this can help them with maths (shopping, measuring ingredients), literacy (reading recipes, interpreting recipe information), science (heat/oxidation reactions, physics of liquids etc, biology, ecology), PHPE (nutrition, self-efficacy and fine motor skills improvement).
We want to decrease our family conflict around homework, leave space in all our lives for other pursuits, including letting kids be kids and leaving them outside to play freely as well as relieve you both of one set of homework-marking.
Thanks so much for reading this. I'd very much like this to be the start of a conversation about homework, and I'm more than happy to work with you to ensure there is minimal disruption to your classroom.
Warm regards,


05/09/2016

PTSD from suicidal ideation?

....I'd never really thought about that before but it's interesting. I'm not even sure that it's useful, but this article about 'why it's so hard for us to recover from being suicidal' is one of those things that, like it or not, is going to compost in my head and then inform the way I think. What do you think? What about when suicidal ideation becomes a comforting (if terrifying) habit? The understanding that I really shouldn't top myself because I have kids to look after has probably kept me alive during the bad* weeks, but that protective factor is something I grieve over because now I don't even have that escape..

*Doktor Freud would have chortled. I made a typo and originally 'bad' was written as 'mad' - comedy gold!

23/08/2016

Lived experience

I've been meaning to write about tattoos, but an assignment I'm doing on the difference between grief, sadness and depression and a lecture I went to this morning have me thinking. The idea of the lecture was to give student nurses an insight into mental illness that we may not otherwise get, a lived experience story from the point of view of a 'consumer' and that of a carer. Jayne Newling came to speak with us. She lost one son to mental illness when he took his own life and both of her other sons have lived with mental illness and now consider themselves recovered. Jane has a journalist background and wrote a book called Missing Christopher that looks brilliant. I have it and plan on reading as soon as study is over for the semester.

I'm going to cry when I read the book. I know I am because I cried during the talk today. I wasn't doing ladylike eye-dabbing, my body was vibrating with silent sobs and I was worried that snot would drip down my face coz I didn't want to disturb the room by blowing my nose. There were a lot of tears in the room so I didn't feel terrible, but it wasn't great.

Part of the reason it was so difficult for me to listen to was that I saw it from both sides. I am a mother to two boys and I'm deeply sure that my biggest role in life is to protect my boys from harm, and give them the tools to deal with the bad times when they come along. There is a history of mental illness in their family (not only me!) which increases the likelihood of them suffering from mental illness and the death of a child, is every parents worst nightmare. If you are a parent reading this there is every chance you will get a lump in your throat just reading this, let alone having someone tell you the details of their child's suicide.

Then there is the other side: I was a child with mental illness. I don't remember a time when I didn't at least toy with ideas of my own death, and by 10 (yep, ten years old) I had not just thought about taking my own life, I had a very concrete plan. I was too little to be able to have much agency, but the one lethal thing I had access too was heights. At age 10 my father was living in a 7th story apartment and I would go out on to the balcony and try and work out if I would definitely die if I jumped off. I thought I probably would but I didn't know how to get a definitive answer - if I asked someone they might see/guess my plan and remove access. I thought adults could pretty much read my mind. The time I remember getting very close to going through with it was summer, the window was open, my brother was asleep but I was awake and unhappy. I climbed from my bunk to the window and sat in the gaping window. One leg hung down inside the room and the other was hugged to my body. My head was under the level of the open window, my scrawny little bottom fit comfortably on the flat of the sill, half in and half out. I remember so clearly being desperate to end my life, believing that the world's population was already too big (remember this is around '83 and we had just come out of fears about peak oil etc) and that we could just fix that with all the people who didn't want to be alive being able to die. Euthanasia.

The big question is what stopped me, what are protective factors for a 10 year old? For me there were two things: fear of failure and preemptive guilt over the pain I would cause my mother. The horror of having to face my family after failing at suicide made me sick with anxiety (and still does) and the thought of my mother living without a child of hers was too sad (and still is).

The rest of my childhood is a dysthymic haze. There was anxiety, bullying, perfectionism, guilt, isolation and then some things that brought joy - connection to friends and family and anytime I managed a sense of self-efficacy (oh how little things have changed for me!). My next episode of serious suicidality was at 16/17, then again at 21, then 26/27 (that one was bad and lasted over a year), 28 (when I got my first diagnosis). Then things were up and down, with bouts of premenstrual dysphoric disorder until I was postnatally depressed at 33 and then depressed again at 37. By 42, last year, I ended up only feeling safe in hospital. Now I am in remission, or as the current best-practice term has it, recovery. I'm mostly happy, I deal with everyday stressors but don't really feel recovered, I feel like the meds I take and the self care I do keep me well for the moment, but if something comes along that messes with what is important for me I could get sick again. Anytime something crashes into my feelings of self-efficacy or the connection I have with those close to me, I can't promise my brain won't slide off into the crazy again.

So what is this history lesson in aid of? Jayne Newling and her son Nic strongly feel that talking about mental illness, including experiences of illness will help people get more and better help, younger, and this will save lives. Nic worked for the Black Dog Institute and has recently set up a group called the Champions. There is no way to know how much easier my life might have been if I had been diagnosed and given good help when I was a kid. Imagine if I wasn't totally terrified of telling people that I hated my life so much I wanted to end it. Maybe I did and they thought it was just a strange kid-thing? I now wish I could have told my loving and supportive parents. Admittedly, they were busy with their divorce and new lives and I didn't want to be a hassle. Yep, I was 10 and thought telling my parents I was suicidal would be an unnecessary burden for them. I don't want any other child to feel that, and I don't want any other parent to live with the guilt that my mother has lived with, since she's known how depressed I was and that she couldn't do anything to help.

In my own way, at a personal level, I have been doing the same kind of work as The Champions - sharing bits of my story and creating a community of like minded people who have lived experience or 'loved one experience' where 'R U OK' is an everyday question and where people feel safe and supported when they admit that they really are not OK  (I like to call this group my 'friends'). If I can normalize this within my own little sphere of influence then just maybe it can spread. I want to end this by thanking my near and dear ones; for coming with me, for letting me out you, for outing me and for always having my back.

04/08/2016

More on gardening and emotional distress

I am a bit anxious at the moment and my mood has been a bit up and down with normal triggers of uni stress and relationship stress. This means I've been trying extra-hard to fit bits of self-care into the busyness of my days. For exercise I have been trying to walk to the station rather than driving (a solid 15+ minute up-hill walk which is fine if it's not raining and I don't have too much to carry), I've been spending time around people who make me feel safe and good (hi Clare!) to feel socially connected, I've been careful with my alcohol consumption and sleep habits (apart from the very early wake-ups that I have minimal control over. I don't mind it on days I have to leave early, but it can be irritating on weekends). Keeping things around me reasonably neat and tidy can help with the anxiety but one of the most important things for me personally is a sense of self-efficacy. It's a common thing for depressed and anxious people to have difficulty with, both noticing the stuff they do manage to do, and building up the motivation to get things done. There are all sorts of 'tricks' to focusing on this stuff - from things as simple as writing a specially tailored to-do list (there were times when my list had nothing more than 'shower, eat lunch, pick kids up from school' so I could manage to get everything done) and to make the things you get done small and/or enjoyable. Getting a tangible result is another trick - if you manage to do the dishes you can really NOTICE.

You can see where this is going right? Gardening. It ticks so many boxes! Doing some weeding creates order out of chaos and channels bad feelings into a positive result (although on a bad day I once had to apologize through my tears to every weed as I pulled it out. For real. I think I went and did something with the compost that day). There is also a tangible result - a nice garden is a lovely place to be and it can get that way, slowly, without too much money, just a whole lot of time and hard work. On a good day when I weed the lawn every dandelion I remove is another dandelion that won't set seed. I acknowledge I'm taking tiny steps, but they are steps in a forward direction. Today I was smirking to myself, thinking that if the garden is a metaphor for my mental state then a therapist is the horticulturalist/tree lopper/lawn mowing guy who I pay to help me sort my shit out.

I've hardly done anything in the garden for the last year (after about three years of lots of time and effort) and it just feels great to be getting my hands dirty again, so apologies for hurriedly written posts the overstretched analogies.

02/08/2016

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow

"To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow" is allegedly a quote by Audrey Hepburn. It sounds twee to me, even when I imagine it in her voice, but there is a really interesting current of truth running through it. I was weeding the other day and realised that if there was one thing I would recommend to anyone with what are coyly titled 'mental health challenges' it would be gardening.

I feel dealing with mental health challenges might be an area where I have something to add. I have always been interested in mood, thinking and feeling. I am studying mental health nursing at the moment, I have close friends and family who suffer from mental illnesses, varying in both type and severity and I have what gets termed 'lived experience' as well (if I were a therapist I would interrupt to ask me why I needed to justify myself. This is my blog, I shouldn't feel the need to recite credentials and yet.... Why?)

Anyhow, there are a bunch of things that are commonly agreed to promote good mental health, with the potential to aid in managing mental illness and promoting recovery

  • Adequate exercise
  • Appropriate sleep
  • Diet - plenty of fibre, not too much sugar or saturated fat
  • Avoiding alcohol and recreational drugs
  • Medication as prescribed
  • A sense of connection
  • A sense of self-efficacy
  • Mindfulness/meditation

And I actually think that gardening helps with every single one of these. Exercise is obvious to anyone who has ever been in a garden but sleep is more interesting. I know when I was very depressed sometimes I could get myself into the garden in the morning. Morning sunlight is thought to assist with regulating mood and daylight, again, especially morning light, helps to regulate circadian rhythms. If you find it hard to wake up in the day and impossible to sleep all night (common in situations of emotional distress) daylight can help, which means gardening can help, because gardening is a reason to be out in the daylight.
When you are gardening, grow veggies. If you can't grow veggies then grow herbs. It just might help you eat if that is difficult for you and if eating is too easy then having dirty fingers/grubby gloves means it's easier to pause. It's also easier to concentrate on the goodness of your food, rather than getting caught up in it's emotional value if you cook fresh food with herbs you grow yourself.
Gardening is never going to knock out your substance abuse habit or convince you to take the meds that cut your highs and lows and make you feel flat. Spending time in 'nature' is well known to increase feelings of connectedness and gardening is no different. It can increase feelings of self-efficacy too. Self-efficacy was one of the most important things when I was really depressed and anxious. I felt I couldn't DO anything, particularly anything that made a positive difference. Having seeds germinate, protecting a seedling from snails or staking a tomato plant was an observable thing, and I did it. It mattered to the plants.
Like exercise, mindfulness and meditation are a part of gardening. Weeding requires a type of mindful concentration but allows for meditative states. My lovely wise mother tells me that all the biggest decisions of her life were made while weeding. I tell my kids that it's a bit like playing the type of repetitive puzzle games that I play - I play them compulsively when I'm falling apart.

I could probably provide scholarly references for all of that but what I can't back up, but know in my bones, is that gardening helps. When my life is spinning wildly out of control, I can work methodically to get the clovers out of the lawn. When study stress is threatening to take over my life I joke to my uni friends about procrastigardening, Weeding is a relatively healthy and functional way to channel compulsivity, a manic episode could see trees pruned, lawns mowed, and who knows what built while depression might see nothing worse than more weeds than normal. This is starting to read like an impassioned plea for more community gardens and for employee flexi time for gardening but I actually think those things would enable us to handle our stressful lives a bit better.

So this thinking all came about when I was gardening the other day. I was actually marveling at how things are growing, even in the depths of winter, and pondering the wonderfulness of my terrific friends. My friends (you know who you are) are the people who would help me hide the bodies - both metaphorically and also possibly literally. I was thinking about how they pop up like four leaf clovers, lucky, rare and precious. I pick four leaf clovers when I find them, and feel smug and lucky, a similar feeling I have about my wonderful support network. As I was thinking these nice but somewhat self-congratulatory thoughts I came across a FIVE LEAF CLOVER. Never seen that one before!

This slightly chewed, odd, mutant miracle is for D.

23/03/2016

Tanya asked what an Atheist Hindu was...

..and I told her I didn't really know, but I would try and think it through. She asked in the context of me claiming that my Pundit acknowledging 'Atheist Hindu' as a thing. It's something I've been thinking about a bit recently, as I try to make sense of the difficulties I face and when I revel in feeling like I am fulfilling my dharma as I study nursing and raise my kids. I was brought up by a non practicing C of E father, a mother lapsed from her strict Methodist upbringing to vague eastern hippiehood and I went to an anthroposophical school. I was not destined to get all fundamental about any religion, but to give all of them a certain grudging respect.

I don't think there is a divine plan, or really a divine at all. I don't believe in anything supernatural, but I know there is stuff that science can't explain (yet). I suspect our minds are more powerful than we give them credit for.

Hindu gods can be approached as a manifestation of a feeling, or a desire, or even perhaps a social construct. As such I give a respectful little (mental) nod and a wink to Ganesha (Remover of Obstacles) before I start some new endevour. In distracted moments I wonder how I would depict Saraswati (Wisdom and Learning) if I were creating a likeness of her (traditionally she has a musical instrument, but that doesn't work for me). Really what I'm pondering in these moments is what obstacles I may have to overcome or the nature of wisdom

I look at my life in terms of fulfilling my Dharma (looking for, and following, my life's path). I don't believe in literal reincarnation, but I do believe that in so far as our actions impact the world, those impacts can easily last beyond our deaths and they are something to be mindful of.


Please, I know very little about Hinduism really, so standard disclaimer: all errors are entirely my own. 
If you aren't comfortable with me claiming Hindu status then I am perfectly comfortable sticking with Atheism

11/12/2015

Nursing Prac - the reflection that I couldn't submit to uni

This prac has been a game changer for me.

I've always been a bit 'nursey' - black humour and can talk about gross things at mealtimes. I have endless relatives in nursing and a few of my friends are nurses but over the last three weeks I feel like I've started my induction into a whole new world. It's not just the stuff people talk about - naked bodies and bad smells, although I guess that's part of it. It's not just that I was useful and made a difference to a few people's days, although that was pretty important to me too. It's something else, that I'm finding much harder to put my finger on.

When you become a parent you are generally pretty blindsided. Although people talk about it, you hear the jokes, you know there is going to be sleepless nights and dirty nappies and you hope with gritted teeth that you are going to love the little thing when it arrives. But nothing, no amount of pet-ownership, nannying, teaching, reading or siblings can prepare you for the visceral reality of it. I remember back in the early days talking with my wise mum mates, lamenting the fact that no one prepared us and coming to the conclusion that no one told us because there is no combination of words that can make those feeling make sense. There is simply no way to warn anyone else of the horror and the joy of it all. I suspect it is this, multiplied by many, without the social approval and the vast proportion of the population that go through it, that prevents so many veterans from talking about their experiences in the way. No words can convey the fullness of the reality.

And finally, here I am, being admitted to the only club of which I have always wanted to be a member, without understanding there was a club or what membership entailed. I do look at naked bodies differently now (FYI old bottoms are strikingly similar, everything else is surprisingly unique) but I'm more interested in their skin tone and their abilities than their shape, whether I'm going to be able to manage whatever I'm doing without tearing skin that has become tissue paper fragile with age; whether they are going to be able to lean forward so I can wash their bottom without them standing; and how I can best help these people maintain their dignity in the most undignified of situations. As for the bad smells, I use the advice of my mother, wise old nurse that she is: breathe through your mouth. I am also in favour of surreptitiously chewing minty gum.

But the other part was the amazing part, bodies and dignity I always knew I could manage, but how to manage my own feelings when someone old and in pain gazes into my eyes, not knowing who I am, except that I am in a nurses role, and asks pleadingly 'when am I going to die' (I replied with 'I don't know' - that was over a week ago and she is still alive, but is rarely conscious now. She has no visitors so I never worked out where the garden-fresh roses or gardenias in the little vase near her bed came from). What can I say when people say 'I really don't know why I'm here' and you don't either, except they forgot they had the same conversation with you yesterday. And every day before that. So I concentrated on being my very own tiny-but-strong force for good - taking my time when I moisturize battered old legs to give the gentlest leg massage in the world, using two teaspoons of instant when making coffee for the lady who I know likes it extra strong and reciting any tiny snippets of any old poems that I can dredge up out of my memory (Ogden Nash is a favourite!).

For the record, in the 'reflection' I was required to do for my assessment, I did the written equivalent of mumbling about wound dressings and how I want to improve my aseptic technique. That isn't actually wrong, I do want to improve, but really, that's like asking a veteran about the war and being told that whenever he got new boots he got blisters. Important in it's own way, but missing the point.