Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Teens and mental health: a personal perspective

I have been very quiet on this page, in recent months, for a variety of reasons. Life has taken over, as it often does, with its ups and downs.
Whilst I have been doing some work as a mindfulness tutor and Connected Kids trainer, a lot of other stuff has been going on in my personal life, which has taken priority. 
One of these priorities has been this lovely young lady, in the picture. This is my daughter, who has given me full permission to write about our experiences. We are going to put together some information to help both teens and parents who might be experiencing similar challenges to those we have faced as a family, in order that we might help them. So, if you or a child in your family have been experiencing some mental health issues, please continue reading.
First of all, I want to explain that I don't claim to have all the answers; I am not perfect (who is?); I make mistakes and I learn from them; I practice what I teach.
My daughter has always been what her primary school head teacher called "a real live-wire" from as young as reception age. She is a very bright, feisty girl with an abundance of energy which was - and still is - often a bit of a challenge to manage - both for her, and for me as her mum. I have been teaching her a lot of meditation and mindfulness techniques from as young as three years old. Some of these techniques have helped her, others haven't. However, it seems that as we are in the midst of hormone fog and teenage boundary-pushing, things have turned a little bit pants at times. I often remind her to take some slow deep breaths, when she is starting to show signs that she is becoming out of control with her emotions, but my gently saying, "just notice your breath, take the next one deeper" - to be met with an infuriating daughter shouting "I AM BREATHING!" followed by tuts and strops. Sometimes I can't help but laugh, which sometimes diffuses the situation, but sometimes just makes it worse.
This beautiful girl has been struggling in the past few years with depressive symptoms, has dabbled in self-harm, is dark and withdrawn and has episodes of panic and anxiety. Still I work with her in learning to understand these feelings, emotions and moods which overcome her like a massive wave that sinks her momentarily. Still I teach her to work with it and use her meditation skills and methods to help find the anchor within. Sometimes she can, sometimes she can't see it, sometimes she kicks back at me in rebellion.
We are waiting for CAMHS to see her after her initial assessment, where we are waiting to see what the plan is. She seems to have a lot of features of ADHD, but until we have been seen by the consultant, we are hanging in mid-air, waiting to see what happens next: a mindful experience in itself.
So I do wonder if some out there are reading this and thinking, "she teaches kids meditation but her daughter has this going on - she can't be any good at her job, can she?" - but I see it differently: I believe that my daughter's mental health would be far worse if I hadn't taught her the techniques I have, over the last 10 years - this is backed up by a comment from a professional mental health specialist nurse who said my daughter would be in a much worse place without my expertise.
So as things have developed over the past year or so, I've concentrated more on helping my daughter, connecting with her as much as I am able to, and tried hard to access the care she needs from other professionals.
But as ever, this girl continues to be one of my greatest teachers, and I will continue to learn.
I'd be interested to hear from you about your experiences and shared knowledge - please do contribute - but bear in mind my daughter will read this, too, so try to keep comments encouraging and helpful to all.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Don't give Up Hope

All Is Not Lost
By taking one breath at a time
You have the courage to keep going
To put one foot in front of the other - 
Although it may seem ridiculous or sublime - 
On days when you're unsure you can face another
When you can't see the woods for the trees
Allow your life to gather love and meaning
Like a forest floor cradles its leaves
Because as each season changes everything
For what's lost, sometimes we grieve
And a cacophany of hormones, heart and mind reminds us that this
Can trigger such deep emotion
A nugget which has been mined
Plucked from the dark, with no trace of hope
It can feel like the soul has eloped
Away from the world, the everyday
Into blackened smog and velvety dread, so
Try to look for a twinkle somewhere each day
Even if you're not seeing it
The spark of light is there
Just because you can't see it
Don't think there aren't those around you who care
(Now read from the bottom to the top)
Nikki Harman

Call Samaritans (UK and ROI) on 116123 if you feel you want to take your own life

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Letting in the light, letting in the dark

Today in the northern hemisphere, it's the winter solstice - the shortest day, the longest night. As I write it's just after 4pm: where I live, the sky is a milky gloom above muddy fields and a chalky blue, calm sea.
We are being enveloped in a velvety darkness which can be both of comfort and of a heaviness, resting upon the shoulders of those who feel its burden; or feeling wrapped in a blanket of peace and restfulness. Regardless of how you see it, the winter solstice offers us all the opportunity to go within ourselves and visit the shadows, to experience the darker side of ourselves. We can reflect on our year, looking at the difficulties we have faced, what we have learned from them, how we take these experiences forward in our lives. Then we can lighten those burdens by accepting those difficulties and learning to let go. Take some time to sit in silence, meditating on these, or by writing them down. When you do so, invite yourself to let go either by taking some deep, abdominal breaths to release tension in your body where you may have been holding on to stuff in your body and mind. You can either then visualise breathing out the tension and as you breathe in, taking in bright colours of light around your body; or burn your piece of paper. In both cases, sit with the intention of gratitude for the experiences you have faced and let go of the sense of difficulty.
If you've had your best year yet, and you have much to celebrate, sit in reflection and feel that pride and joy within you and around you. Share that light to cast away those shadows. You can embrace the other side of the solstice, the other half of our selves: summer solstice, for those in the southern hemisphere, who will be celebrating the longest day, tomorrow. Here in winter time, from tomorrow the days become longer, the nights become shorter. We can begin to look at what we can plant and grow in the coming months, to look forward to those vibrant days where the sunlight warms our bones and fills us with a different energy.This is a day for reflecting on the seeds sown, reaping rewards and the warmth and brilliance of the light, which helps us grow.
In either case, gratitude invites acceptance and offers happiness and satisfaction. As hard as it may be to do so, even a tiny glimmer of positivity can offer hope, not just for yourself, but to others.
Where we have hope, we can invite peace into our hearts, into our lives and can grow and share this with others. If we all do so, we have a chance to bring in Peace On Earth.

Nikki Harman is a mindfulness coach, Connected Kids™ tutor and trainer, and a registered nurse working within the NHS.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Single parenting, guilt, and christmas

Writing here as a single parent, I'm going to share some of my experiences to anyone out there who is also parenting alone, and is feeling the pressure of the season, whether financially, emotionally or otherwise.

It's the 6th December and the Elf in The Shelf is yet to appear in our house. My 12 year old knows the true origins of our "Elvishh", but my almost 9yo has eagerly awaited his arrival, each day asking if he has appeared, yet.

I haven't got my kids an advent calendar this year, either. They eat a lot of chocolate in their normal, non-festive lives; they will get masses of it as presents, so they don't need more. But, as with the lack of Elvishh, I feel a pang of guilt.

Tonight, after I'd cooked dinner, tidied up, snuggled on the sofa with the kids, read with them and put them to bed, I decided I could no longer put off retrieving Elvishh. He lives in his own filth amongst all the stuff I rarely use.

He lives in a cupboard under the stairs, amongst several boxes, a vacuum cleaner, and a variety of arachnids. I had to pull out everything to find him, but he was hiding and it took ages. I found him and then hastily put everything back, but the door wouldn't close.

So I tried to shove the door shut, and as I did I heard wood splintering. The vacuum was blocking the door. The hinges were loose. I had to find my drill in another cupboard of doom to secure the hinges and rearrange stuff to allow the door to close. I was not happy.

I had found Elvishh

But the real, truthful reason I was able to get the cupboard shut, was because I had removed the vacuum cleaner from the space, and rearranged Elvishh to begin his annual adventure of kid-friendly magic.

The vacuum cleaner doesn't work very well, it's heavy, ineffective and taking up precious space. I do have a newer, lighter one that gets used - I've just never really gotten around to removing the old one from the house.

The moment I decided I didn't want to keep it anymore, the moment my guilt at not having subscribed to my son's festive anticipation eased. I was holding on to this heaviness in my heart, the feeling that I am ineffective as a single parent.

The faulty vacuum is a metaphor for how guilt can suck the joy out of parenting, with particular reference to how cumbersome these feelings can be, with the risk of splintering solid, well-placed intentions, and causing displacement of the reality into false beliefs.
The reality of my situation is that I'm knackered. I am working three jobs to keep my children in their cosy, comfortable home. I am pretty-much single-handedly helping my children with everything, from washing their stinky socks and sweaty PE kits, making every meal and packed lunch, helping them complete their homework, listening and guiding them through their various instruments, being an agony aunt, a sounding board for them to air frustrations, anger and misplaced accusations, loving them as much as I possibly can, often with an aching, wide open heart that is fragile to the knockbacks, defiantly proud of all that they are and all that they do, and endlessly loving them, even when they are being a pain in the backside (which of course, they are allowed to do, because they are kids and they need to learn how to make mistakes, as well as learn from them, too).
As a single parent I often self-impose those feelings of inadequacy, guilt, borne out of doing everything I possibly can to make sure my kids are happy, warm, well-fed, get their homework done and have quality time as a family.

I want my children to look back on their childhood fondly, to have happy memories and know they were loved. I don't want to cost them a fortune in therapy as adults. My reluctance to get Elvishh out was down to a case of "bah, humbug"

So to all of you single parents out there, if you are overwhelmed with your feelings of inadequacy or guilt at this time of year, check in with yourself and observe that if things get difficult, give yourself the recognition that you deserve. You are doing the best you can.

And that, in itself, is enough.

 Nikki Harman is a mindfulness coach, Connected Kids™ tutor and trainer, and registered nurse working within the NHS.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Mindful Kids

Sometimes, when I talk to people about mindfulness and meditation, they believe it to be mostly about sitting still, clearing the mind and breathing. Whilst there is a fair amount of this type of activity involved, there is a greater, far more rewarding experience to be had by learning a range of mindful and meditative techniques.
Teaching kids mindfulness is great fun and incredibly rewarding, especially with younger children: they tend to be naturally brilliant at living in the present, as many a parent will tell you when they're in a hurry and their 6 year old is walking painfully slowly, taking their time and whole happy selves to experience the teeny, tiny baby snail making its way along the wall, leaving its thin slimy silvery trail as it goes; or the twenty zillion cracks in the pavement that they absolutely must NOT step on otherwise they'll marry a rat; the spectacularly beautiful stone (that, which looks to the grown-up like it might be a piece of cement that's crumbled out of a brick wall) that they must take home with them as it is so precious and magical - does this sound familiar to you? How much time do you indulge in your child to experience this, even if you're in a hurry? How often do you tell your child to walk sensibly - instead of allowing them to tip-toe along the pavement, to prevent their prophesy of impending marital doom? Think of it another way - by doing so, it could be that they're saving you the heartache of waving them off to the wedded-stress of marrying someone with rodent behavioural tendencies...
I've been teaching mindfulness to children for 4 or 5 years now, and have found many different activities which promote the important neuroplasticity and cognitive changes over a period of time. Young children often benefit from physical activities as a way of burning off excess energy, to release stress and anxieties, and can often make some space in their present moment for focusing on their thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, using a range of child-friendly techniques. One of my preferred ways of helping my own children is through cooking, because it is great for mindfully considering food provenance, how the food is metabolised by their body, marvelling at the wonder of how their body does this without them even noticing; it also fosters the all-important connection with my children, as we have fun together, learn together, help each other, and give space for them to share their feelings, worries, concerns. It's also really good for developing collaborative working, sharing responsibility, growth mindset, and more. Making pasta, as shown in the photo above, was experimental, funny, annoying and tasty, but more than this they fully experienced their senses, mindfully working through the process. A very mindful process, we even synched our breath with the turning of the handle to press the pasta through to see if we could make our breath as long as our pasta - which got longer each time! Of course it was almost impossible to do, but it was a way of allowing the children to be aware of their breath and how they could change the length of the breath in and out.
So if you're keen to teach your child meditation, try different ways in which you can experiment with the activities you choose. Remember to practise meditation yourself, so that you can feel the benefits, too.

Nikki Harman is a Connected Kids™ mindfulness tutor and trainer; and also teaches adults mindfulness. Nikki is a member of the International Meditation Teacher Association (IMTA) as an approved trainer provider; and is also a registered nurse working within the NHS.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Gaia, the teacher of hope, empathy and compassion

Swanage is a quiet, Victorian seaside town in Dorset, with a population of around 10,000, a mix of older and young generations, from a range of social background and cultures. It is a town in which generally, not a lot happens: although in summer months it is packed with tourists who enjoy camping, the festivals, carnivals and the beach; pubs and restaurants are filled with families, all out to make the most of the beautiful surroundings and to relax; for the locals, it is a busy time, as hotels, B&B's, cafes, restaurants and pubs make their lions -share of their earnings, much the same as many seaside towns around the UK.
In winter the town slows down, as roads are clearer, businesses slow down or close up until the spring. The town slips into a state of semi-hibernation and people see a little less of each other. 
Swanage has a mix of generations living amongst each other. On Swanage-based facebook posts you can find the usual small community grumbles around dog-fouling on pavements, complaints about noise or the youths in the town "making a nuisance" of themselves - local politics and inter-generational differences of opinion are easy to find.
 Occasionally, however, something big unites the community, with generations working together for the common good - one example being when the local community hospital was threatened with closure. Crowds of people lined the streets to attend meetings to find out what the greater plans were and to protest against reducing availability of  their healthcare services. Feelings ran high and eventually the closure idea was scrapped. The community had come together to save a vital service for the town. 
Then on 7th November 2017, a local woman, Gaia Pope went missing. As word spread around Swanage and the Purbeck community, more and more people became affected by her disappearance. People wanted to know where she was. People wanted to help the family look for their Gaia. Over the following days more and more members of the community got together to search high and low. With the passage of time, grew a palpable anxiety and concern for Gaia's well-being, matching the growing numbers of people keen to help, and the feeling of empathy and compassion for Gaia's family, who were experiencing the worst imaginable agony of not knowing where she was. 
Locals, some who knew Gaia and their family, and those who could relate to this awareness of loss and fear of the worst, the dread of not being able to find Gaia, were spurred on in the search. Days and days went by, with some members of the community relentlessly searching, handing out leaflets, knocking on doors in areas where Gaia may have been. As days went by, some were becoming exhausted in their motivation to find Gaia and desperate to find her safe and well, to be re-united with her family; her family becoming increasingly distressed at Gaia's disappearance and desperate to find her. 
Hundreds of people came from far and wide to join a mass search for Gaia on the 18th November; when at last Gaia's body was found, the community went into shock. 
Now, a palpable sorrow has descended on Swanage. Empathy, compassion and love is being shared amongst each other and offered endlessly to Gaia's family and friends. The worst imaginable outcome, the loss, the sadness, the grief is being shared so compassionately amongst almost everyone I meet. The mention of Gaia is never far from anyones' lips, not for ghoulish gossip, but for deep sorrow and compassion. The level of empathy and care that is emanating from the hearts of this town is incredible.
Gaia has given us the opportunity to be reminded of the gifts of compassion, empathy, motivation to seek out the truth and to show us what it is to unite once again as a community, to surround Gaia's family with love and hope, and to experience that deep, heart-centred meaningful contact with one another. 
Let it not be that Gaia is forgotten, nor that her family feel the aching loss without knowing that they are surrounded by people who care so deeply; as time passes and the shock fades, let Gaia remind us that empathy and compassion can only come from the heart, that we are connected by this and that it is always possible to choose love, no matter how painful, how difficult, or how isolating life can be. Let us always remember that we have the power within us to connect for the good, and to use this as often as possible, as positively as we can, acknowledging differences and similarities, for the sake of each other and in memory of Gaia and her family. 

"Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life's search for love and wisdom" - Rumi

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Choose Love

One of my favourite running T shirts - because people smile at me and talk to me when I wear this! As part of the help for refugees campaign, designed by Katharine Hamnett.

I'm sure you have noticed that there is some particularly difficult stuff going on around the planet, at the moment. I don't know about you, but over the past few weeks I've been feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the negativity that's been present in the news, online, and in general. There seems to be a strong presence of...well, to be perfectly blunt: shit - hitting some enormous fan and spreading it outwards, to the point where no place is left clear of the stuff. It's almost impossible to read, hear or watch news coverage without feeling a sense of enormity of some kind of emotion, whether it's anger, sadness, loss, bewilderment, frustration, stress, fear...hate?  
And doesn't it all seem to be familiar? Are we living in some sort of twisted loop of déjà vu? Why is it that we are hearing the same thing, over and over? War-famine-disease-natural disaster-massacre-world leader losing grip on reality. The same merry-go-round of awfulness which just keeps cycling over and over. 

People all have an opinion about what is "right" and what "should" be done. People who think they are right and have the answers. In one personal example recently, a post from someone in Australia appeared on my Facebook newsfeed, which she had shared from someone who had decided that Australia should be given back to the original Australians - the ones that arrived a couple of hundred years ago - and that everyone else should disappear back to whichever country they came from. Have these Australians forgotten that there is a whole indigenous population, a nation who had been happily living there for thousands of years before the "Australians" turned up?! 
 Have members of UKIP ever looked at their ancestry? Have any of the Brits whom are so convinced they are so very British ever looked back beyond a few generations in their family? Because I am fairly sure that British doesn't truly exist in the "purest" forms these folk imagine. I know in my own  family I have ancestors from St. Lucia. I also have ancestors from various parts of Eastern Europe, as well as Ireland (I burn in the sun, rather than tan, so I guess I know which genes are dominant!). Again, in Australia, they have been voting in the same-sex marriage referendum. I find it hard to believe that it is still an issue, and yet here we are, a world which is beginning to choose love over hate, a world which is collectively beginning to rise up against the fear, the hate, the anger; nations of people who are standing up for the rights to be heard, for equality, for basic human rights; individuals who are questioning the status quo more than ever before. 

So what can you do in these times? 
How are you faring? Are you OK? Are you anxious? Are you worried? Are you living in fear? Or are you riding along in the moment? Are you being proactive or reactive? 

As someone who practises meditation daily, I am finding these to be bumpy times. Personally, I'm quite sensitive to the news. I can only listen in short bursts. I can only look at social media in small doses. I actively seek out silliness to avoid the horrors. I work in a high-pressure environment in my nursing world, so I tend to minimise watching programmes that are terribly sad, harrowing or scary. I watch comedy more than anything else, because frankly, I need to laugh every day. I also run a lot, because it gets me out of the house and into rural green and coastal areas where I often mingle only with sheep, cows, view the occasional pods of dolphins and a lot of seagulls, as well as the occasional walker, whom I startle with my earphone karaoke. 
But when things are really getting me down, I do two things. 1) I clean my kitchen. It looks gleaming on the gloomiest news days. A sad reflection of current affairs. 2) I sit in the stillness of my mind, my heart and my observation of life from a peaceful standpoint. And when I ask a question of "why" to each atrocity I hear about; when I ask "how" to heal the troubles we are facing; when I ask "what" can I do as an individual to make  a difference, what whispers quietly to me? What slowly reaches my ears, in deference to these questions I ask? 
Choose Love.
I have been explaining this to clients and friends for a number of years. I have been telling myself and trying to heed to this mantra for even more. It is hard. It is difficult to understand how to choose love over anger when there is so much hate being displayed in the world, right now. But there has always been hate, and this hate, in its many forms, has been fought with hate and anger and produced only more hate and anguish. Love is the seedling which grows slowly yet persistently and will gradually transform the fields of fear and hatred - but it has to be nurtured, it has to be heard, it has to be whispered and shouted and sung and played; it has to be praised like a child learning to speak and listened to with open ears; it has to be heard over and over. Choose Love. Anger is not working. Love takes on many forms, it doesn't have to be a passive role. Love is precipitated by passion - so stand up for what you believe in, but come from your heart, open your heart to the truth of what we all crave, which is to be loved. Nobody is born to hate. We are taught to hate, but we can be taught to love, to share, to nurture the goodness in life. Note that I am not asking you to ignore the horrible stuff going on in the world. I am not asking you to pretend bad things aren't happening. I am asking you to invite a different perspective into your world, if you are not doing this already - if you want to make changes in the world, start with yourself and then gradually move outwards. If this sense of love allows you to spend time raising money for refugees, for example, let this guide you and see where it takes you. You may not be able to stop terrible things from happening in the world, but you can influence your own life and those around you in positive ways.
I ask you to sit quietly once a day, just for a few minutes, and take yourself to a place in your heart which holds love. When you arrive there, be still there for a while, then imagine that sense of love growing within you and spreading outwards. Practice it each day, and notice how it makes you feel, as well as if it influences those around you. I'm not offering this as a hippy, dewy-eyed view of life, nor as a holier-than-thou answer to the world's problems - this is just a perspective I am offering you, the reader, to consider.
Choose Love.