Friday, 28 July 2017

Podast with The Rocking Raw Chef: From Homelessness To Mindfulness

The rocking raw chef interviewed me about my experiences of living in temporary accommodation, being hungry, and how this has led me into teaching kids meditation, to help them in their lives:
What I talk about is deeply personal and not spoken about for sympathy. It is intended to help make mental illness a more open subject, to teach others about the psycho-social impact homelessness has on families and to help people recognise the symptoms of children as well as parents, who are struggling in their home lives.
I teach mindfulness to help make connections with the mind, the emotions and to make sense of inner turmoil. That is what The Inner Space Project is: a path to finding the Peace, harmony and love within ourselves, to then share with those around us.
So make yourself a cuppa, to have a listen to this podcast. Thank you so much to Barbara Fernandez for giving me a voice.
Please go to your GP if you are feeling depressed.
Seek help from those around you.
Children can call childline for free on 08001111
if they are scared, worried or just need a person to talk to about what's on their mind
If you are an adult and feeling suicidal, you can call the Samaritans on 116123
If you are experiencing a food crisis, your gp, health visitor, local surestart centre or church leader can refer you for a 3 day emergency food parcel and food vouchers. This is not a long-term solution, but assistance for a crisis.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Help: Talking mum out of suicide when I was twelve

It was a sunny day, sometime in 1987. My mum was waiting outside my middle school in her skyblue 1970's-tastic Volvo, which had definitely lived through it's best days, preferring to steadily rumble along like a middle-aged Labrador through the mostly angst-ridden, short runs through town it was used for.
I knew mum was having a very difficult time of things. We'd been placed into a homeless, temporary B&B accommodation the year before, my parents had separated, and mum was finding things very difficult to manage generally. She had been taking to drinking miniature bottles of bacardi and vodka, which was all she could afford to buy, but as I recall often mixed them with the Temazepam she kept on her bedside table or in her handbag, which resulted in a mixture of a sleepy but rouseable mother at the wheel, and the sickly sweet smell of alcohol that greeted me when I climbed into the front seat (the privilege of being the older, 12 year old sibling).
On this particular day, she seemed agitated. She was more short with me than normal, and her driving seemed more erratic. She also wasn't crossing her fingers, which is what she did for every drive she took us on, for "good luck" - she was always anxious that we would have a car accident, but keeping her fingers crossed would evidently prevent this incident from occurring.
As we pulled away, and headed away from the school, it became apparent that we weren't going on our normal route back to the B&B. I asked where we were going, a sense of trepidation building within me. We never went anywhere. Mum just didn't plan fun stuff. We had nowhere to go. Mum didn't reply, but continued on our unplanned route.
After a while, we found ourselves in the back roads between Corfe Castle and Studland, which are winding little B-roads with a number of blind bends, but some very beautiful scenery to look at along the way. Mum's driving became more uncharacteristically faster (though not fast, by any means). A glance at mum revealed to me that she was crying: I distinctly remember her black mascara running down her cheeks, her breathing was fast, she looked angry and distant. I felt my anxiety growing, but felt too scared to say a word. I looked into the back seat to see my brother, who was looking out of his window, oblivious to what was happening in the front. I asked him if he was OK. "Yeah" came his quiet reply. I decided he was probably thinking about football. That's what he thought about a lot, at the age of 8.
I returned my attention to the road in front of us. We were steadily climbing up a hill, and there was a South Dorset coach just a short way ahead of us. Mum was accelerating towards it, rather than slowing down. Suddenly, her voice thick with sadness, she shouted above the revs of the engine, "how would you like to go to heaven, kids?".
Those words. That sentence. I was filled with terror. My brother and I both started screaming as the coach appeared closer and closer. There was no way that the driver could see us in his mirrors, we were far too close. We both began shouting at her to slow down. "No, we don't want to go to heaven!" we shouted. "we don't want to die!" But mum couldn't, or wouldn't hear us. I remember that I tried to imagine I was a grown-up, and what I should say to mum, what people she knew and loved would say to her to help her feel better and change her mind. "There are people who can help you" I told her. "We don't want to die. We don't want you to die. We need you. I want to live. Please stop the car, please slow down". But mum carried on. We were now so close to the coach that even a little nudge of the coach driver's brakes would have meant we would have gone into the back of it. I could hear my brother screaming, and he had curled himself up onto the back seat. I grabbed his hand and told him it was OK. I frantically grabbed mum's arm, to try to get her to hear me, and vaguely remember pulling at the gear stick to see if that might slow the car down. "I have had enough" mum continued. "I don't want to be here anymore, the world is better off without me, and you're coming with me." My brother and I begged her to stop. What followed was an interminably long pause in the world of Me: it really did feel as though life had stopped. We were in a state of nothingness, the world seemed desolate, empty, silent. Nobody, but nobody could save us from this situation. We were helpless. That, in a nutshell, was how mum felt at that very moment, and I was experiencing it vicariously as we were threatened with impending destruction and death. I began to cry. "I love you, we both love you. We need you. We don't want you to die. Don't do this". Another interminable silence followed, before mum braked, backed away from the coach, and drove at a distance to the coach. Nobody said anything as she turned off the road, back towards town and towards the B&B again. After a while, mum told me "It's your fault that I'm alive, I'm only here because of you two, not because I want to be here, but because you are making me, and I blame you for making me miserable". The emptiness in the world of me became just a little bit bigger, at those words. I realised that there was nothing I could say that would ever make things OK for mum. I realised that no matter what, she would always hold that deep level of resentment towards me. She wanted to kill herself, yet she wanted to hear that she was needed, if only to counter that with her own self-pity and her despising attitude towards me.

My whole body began to relax again as the adrenalin wore off, and the shock set in. Mum drove into the parking space at the front of the B&B we were staying at for a week before moving back into the accommodation next door.
Before we got out of the car, mum lit herself a cigarette, took a couple of puffs, and said, "don't tell ANYBODY about this. I don't want anyone to know. If you do, you'll get taken away from me."

I desperately wanted someone to know - someone to help mum, someone grown-up who could listen to her, help her get through this terrible time she was having. I wanted to feel protected and safe. The void of loneliness opened up just a little bit wider, and I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders.
I opened the passenger door, and tried to get out: my legs felt like jelly and my hands were tingling, like I had a bad case of pins and needles. I knelt down on the ground, to feel the warm earth beneath both sides of my hands. I needed to feel that I was safe, so this felt like a good thing to be doing. My brother and I went into the garden, whilst my mum went up to our room. I wanted to cry and be hugged and to feel safe and loved. I wanted mum to feel better, to feel loved and safe, too. I just couldn't reach her, because she was in her own void of sadness, sitting in the dark shadows of depression, alcohol and benzodiazepines, a dysmorphic haze of helplessness, self-pity, inaccurate feelings of worthlessness and a massive portion of dissolution of parental responsibility.

In that moment along those back roads, my childhood ended. I became the parent. I took on the role of reasoning, but it resulted in me being hyper-vigilant: always watching how much mum was drinking, smoking, counting the tablets in the brown medicine bottle to see how many she was taking each day; asking her how she was, if she was OK, if I could help her. Worrying that something would happen to her whilst I was at school, worrying that she wouldn't be there to pick us up from school at the end of the day. My anxiety levels increased; I wasn't sleeping well. I became more withdrawn at school; I took on an air of moroseness which was difficult to shake off. My school work suffered. I didn't know how to explain what was happening without betraying my mum's request to not talk about what had happened. It was already hard enough to not speak about my parent's splitting up - moving from our lovely 6-bedroomed Victorian sea-side house, to a rundown B&B sharing a room with a depressed and disengaged parent, a dad who we saw every 6 weeks or so, and barely had an opportunity to say hello to, let alone explain how difficult things were. I didn't want dad to worry about us, so I didn't tell him how bad things were. I just wanted mum to be OK.

It took another year or so before mum got herself into an even footing, again, by which point I was at my lowest ebb. We moved to a flat which meant we had our own space, but it also meant mum retreated even further into her own world, with a very lonely summer holiday spent entertaining ourselves however we could, whilst mum lived in her own world, separate from ours. Mum's depression sank even deeper, resulting in her leaving us in the flat, with her parting words being "I'm going out and I'm never coming back", which created a whirlwind of panic and fear. I had no idea what to do. My brother hadn't heard her saying this, as he'd been in his room at the time. I tried to be calm, and pretended she'd gone to the shops when he came out to ask where mum had gone. A few hours later she returned, angry and withdrawn, before going back to the lounge where the curtains were always drawn, and it was dark and stuffy all the time. My jelly-legs returned, my anxiety went skyrocketing. A few days later, when I felt that my world was caving in around me, I used the phonebox across the road to speak to Childline . They couldn't directly do anything to help me, they said, but they were always there to chat to me, whenever things got too difficult, so long as it was safe for me to call them. The void of desolation opened wider still.

Things did get better. It's always hard to imagine that, when that void is so wide it is all that is visible, tangible, palpable, to ever believe that things will get better. "things will improve" is a platitude that people use when they really don't know what to say, other than things will change, life moves forwards, stuff happens to change a situation. For me, what got better is my ability to cope, my empathy, my understanding of the fragility and strength of what it is to be human. I experienced the most crippling form of loneliness imaginable at that time in my life. There was nobody I could turn to in order to get help. There was nobody I could call upon for a hug, nobody to listen to my mum, which is what she needed so desperately, but was so unable to access because she was in her own void of desperation. So I understood perfectly how my mum felt, because I was living it, too. I remember living day-to-day, in my hyper-vigilance, trying to make Everything Alright. My mum was living as a child in a different form, in a state of fear, loneliness, isolation and desperation, but was locked into her grown-up body and mind, which chose to shut out everything and close the shutters on the world until such a time came that she was ready to let in the light and begin to grow, again.

This post is dedicated to all those children who are going through intensely difficult periods in their lives, for whatever reason. For any child living in the void of loneliness, the void of fear, the void of isolation, suffering of any kind. My heart aches for anyone, be it adult or child, who is going through the same feelings. Truly, though, the absolute, worst thing you can do is to pull the shutters down and block out the world. Try to allow even a little chink of light to permeate through the darkness, as that's where growth and change can begin. And it may even begin with the word, "Help".

Go Here if you are worried about a child

Contact The Samaritans if you are considering ending your life

You can watch me talk about the day I talked mum out of suicide here

Please consider donating to your local foodbank over the summer holidays, to help with increased demand whilst children are off school and not receiving their free school meals.

Thursday, 29 June 2017


Food bank use is on the increase. The 2016-17 report from The Trussell Trust, a charity which run projects in communities which aim to reduce poverty, gave out 1,182,954 three-day emergency food parcels last year, a rise of 6% on 2015-16, and of which 436,938 went to children. The Trust's data shows that low income, changes to benefits and delays are cited as the main reasons for referrals to a foodbank. Other reasons include homelessness, debt, school holiday meals and domestic abuse. Go here for the key findings of the report.
In my local town of Swanage, Dorset, a quaint little Victorian town, the local foodbank is run by the Churches Together. I contacted the organisation today and spoke to Katrina, one of the volunteers. She spoke about how they help people from all walks of life; that they tend to use once, are very grateful for the food that is distributed; some needlessly feel a sense of shame about needing to use a foodbank.

As the school summer holidays approach, I am mindful that there are going to be children who will be going hungry, because they won't be receiving their free school meals entitlement. So I am launching #foodforthought - a campaign around food donations to local foodbanks around the United Kingdom.

#foodforthought asks that you add a tin or dried food item to your supermarket foodbank collection each week, or get in touch with your local foodbank to donate, in the next few weeks leading up to the start of the school summer holidays. In Scotland, some of the schools have already started their holidays. Donating something extra to your foodbank whilst you do your regular shop will help to manage the increasing need for access to support.

I've spoken in the past about how I experienced homelessness as a child; my birthday was at the end of April, so I asked for friends, family and people who follow my pages on twitter and facebook to consider putting some food into their local foodbank as a present for me. I'm pleased that a fair number of people did do this! One of my memories of homelessness was how hungry I was during school holidays when I didn't have access to food during the day, and where living in a seaside town, surrounded by cafes, ice-cream parlours, and fish and chip shops made me notice just how hungry I was.
Please help wherever you can, and share the #foodforthought idea to reach as many as possible, to help as many foodbank users as possible.

Thank you.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

All I need is the air that I breathe...

Mindfulness incorporates the breath into a lot of the act of being present. It is the anchor to "the now", and is a perfect example of the present, the past and the future. Each breath we take is a new batch of air, a fresh moment which comes to us whether we control it or not; each breath we exhale is taking away what we no longer need, as our body does its bit to use the air inhaled, take it around the body, sweep up the tail-end of the waste-products of respiration, and release it. Breathing is a natural act, governed by the pons, part of the brain stem and sympathetic nervous system, is largely automatic (in the sense that that one breath will naturally follow the next, although we can influence how deep and rapid it is), and will happen whether we control it, or not, unless something interrupts the process. 
The breath is a perfect tool for helping us to keep present, not just as a reminder to keep within the moment, but because physiologically, the breath can affect our emotions and our feeling of control. If we are stressed, our breathing rate increases. This then sends a clear signal to the brain to initiate the "flight or fight" response, so hormones like Cortisol and Adrenalin are released which increase the heart rate, blood pressure and the respiratory rate. The body becomes flooded with stress hormones, which is great for:
a) running away from the threats of impending death in Neanderthal days gone by

 but not so great for:

b) the forthcoming driving test
c) dental extraction 
d) job interview
 e) you and your overtired-and-wired toddler desperately searching for their one and only essential, most favourite, number one teddy and comfort snug, which, unless it is within sniffing distance of your delightful bundle of squishy loveliness, will result in a night of horrific sleepless woe, comparable to everyone's worst nightmare - before you realise it has been left at your friend's house three hours drive away (This will only happen once, for it is a steep and painful learning curve for all). 
This stress response can be a good thing, though, as in short-term moments it can boost performance, improve memory and be a great motivator, but it can become harmful when it is prolonged, causing effects on sleep, performance and concentration. It's all about balance.

So conversely, taking deeper, slower breaths stimulates a nerve called the Vagus nerve, a companion of the parasympathetic nervous system, which runs from the brain-stem through the trunk of the body down to the lower abdomen. This nerve, when stimulated, sends messages back to the brain to reduce heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure, resulting in the "stand-down" of the stress hormones, which then evokes that sense of calm back into balance, again. Meditation and yoga, in which deep breathing exercises are involved, can stimulate the vagus nerve, increasing "vagal tone". You can also see the examples of this in babies and children, just watch them as they fall asleep and they are taking lovely deep relaxed breaths to their abdomen. Practice it for yourself at bedtime - if you're having trouble dropping off, just take the breaths down to your abdomen and feel it rise as you breathe in, and notice how it changes your state of awareness.
As a nurse I often teach the patients in acute pain with whom I'm working with to focus on their breathing as part of my clinical toolkit, to help them manage their pain, helping as a distraction but also to physiologically manage the stress hormone response. As a Connected Kids™ meditation tutor I teach children of all ages how to use their breath to help them with worries, to help focus, and for relaxation. It is a very effective, accessible tool to use at any time.

So as an asthmatic with a passion for running, I am at a stage where I'm at a loss as to where to go from here, to manage my symptoms. I am increasingly frustrated with the way in which my body is reacting to my attempts to keep healthy and fit - it's almost akin to the rebellious teenager who is fighting the adult in getting out of the house and getting some fresh air on a bright sunny day.

I first began running about 8 years ago, but struggled beyond 200m or so before wanting to collapse in a heap on the pavement. I gradually overcame it and have been running mid to long distances ever since, including a marathon, which as an asthmatic, I consider to be one of my greatest achievements. However, the problem is that I cannot get my asthma under enough control to be symptom-free whilst I run. I hate the first 20 minutes or so, as I struggle with bronchospasm, which feels a little bit like someone is squeezing my bronchi and trachea with a pair of red-hot hands. No matter what I do, how I manage my treatment or organise my timing of taking preventer and reliever inhalers, I still feel this for every run, or sudden burst of activity such as a fast pace up one of the many hills in the town where I live, or when I'm running after the ice-cream van (actually that never happens, I just put it there to see if you're still reading this article and paying attention).
I have a diploma in asthma management, so I'm quite up on treatment plans and managing my symptoms as a patient. But I am very dismayed that I am now taking all this medication to try to control my symptoms. The latest addition is pretty much the end of the line for me, I honestly don't know what else to do if this doesn't work. I am experimentally trying to improve my lung capacity by singing whilst running. I doubt it's helping my asthma, but I am able to hold a note for a bit longer, these days! I'm also not particularly happy about the hoarse quality to my voice, which is a result of the steroid inhalers - I sometimes sound quite alluring, but at other times it is annoying, to say the least! Still, I can't allow this to stop me from taking the medication, as I clearly need it, at the moment.

Giving up exercise is not an option, neither is moving somewhere where hills do not exist, and I won't ever stop in my quest for the enjoyment of ice cream (which, incidentally, also provokes bronchospasm).

So what do I do, other than take the concoction of medication you see in my picture, just to be able to get me into my trainers and out of the front door, for a liberating, beautiful trail run in deepest, rural Dorset, whilst mindfully breathing and working through the agony of asthmatic apices? And it's not just my lungs that are affected: my shoulders and neck compensate for the pain and difficulty in breathing, too, so I am having to work mindfully on these areas, as well. I am lucky in the sense that it could be so bad I wouldn't be able to run at all, but personally I'd rather not have to suffer any of this, or comply with impending polypharmacy as an otherwise healthy adult in my 40's. Hmph.

If anyone out there - especially the elite athletes with asthma, can suggest anything, I would be very grateful. Not that I consider myself to be an elite sportswoman - a fast shuffle around the hills and fields of Purbeck is as good as it gets for me - but I would really love to be able to run without feeling impeded by this.

Monday, 5 June 2017

paying it forward, gratitude and the NHS: how lucky we are

I am a nurse, working in an A&E. I am also a tutor of meditation and a Connected Kids™ tutor and trainer. I am a parent. I spend a lot of my life giving up time, energy, listening, helping, teaching...sometimes swearing under my breath or occasionally stamping my feet on the ground, folding my arms, scowling and grumpily declaring "Not Fair!". 
Recently I've become a patient, relying on the NHS to help me out. I have had a health scare, which involved me being fast-tracked for investigations to rule out something that may have been rather sinister. Today I got to sample the hospital where I work from the other side of the fence. I arrived an hour in advance of my appointment, because I knew it was going to be a waiting game for a parking space (If it wasn't for the fact I live 30 miles away, public transport would have been an easier option). I scampered off to the canteen for a coronation chicken sandwich and wolfed it down in the waiting room, making a jolly mess, actually. But I didn't care, because I had a paper towel and some alcohol rub to clean my hands and erase all evidence of my gorging on coronation chicken in a half-full waiting room on a rainy Monday afternoon. A sandwich where I'd been able to get a staff discount, as I'd remembered to bring my ID badge with me. Well, there have to be some perks to working for the fifth largest employer in the world, doesn't there? My appointment was 50 minutes later than scheduled. But I actually didn't mind. Why? Because I worked a night and a day shift in a quick turnaround (my choice - albeit reluctant - to make up my contracted hours to fit around the social life of my ex-husband and the subsequent parental responsibility arrangements). So I got to doze off in the waiting room. Peace, quiet, no expectations upon me to Do Anything. Just to Be. How lovely! There are only ever two things which worry me about falling asleep in a public place:

1. The snoring. It's a Thing. 
2. The drool. I have no idea how I can cure this. But it's not a good look.

But the allure of soporific background noise in amongst a slightly uncomfortable plastic-covered static chair was too much for my tired body and mind to stay awake. I was just dozing off, heading into some bizarre world where coronation chicken met the subconscious mind of underlying anxiety mixed with the familiarity of being on home turf as a patient, and where the lingering scent of alcohol hand rub was at risk of being ignited with the underlying strands of mild fear which were wrapping themselves around my consciousness, when I heard my name being called. I jumped up in a hurry, pretending that I was awake the whole time. Which I clearly was. Otherwise, how would I have heard my name (maybe it was because they called me Nichola. I always feel like I'm being told off when I'm referred to as a Nichola). 
Anyway. After a consultation, some tests in which one involved a colleague I'd never met but had signed a piece of paper saying I had passed some training to do something (it's always nice to put a face to a name, but on this occasion I felt it was not appropriate to begin a conversation in that regard), I was reassured that although I and my GP had been absolutely right to get checked, the great news is that I am perfect. Sorry - I mean, perfectly well. 
Thank Fuck For That.

(I make no apology for the swear word).

I instantly felt the stress and worry melting away. It's been a tricky 10 days of wondering and worrying, albeit mindfully accepting my fears, worries and thoughts. To be told all is well is fantastic. But I also knew that of the 4 of us who were in the waiting room and had been handed the same pre-consultation questionnaire, one in two of us will, at some point, be given a diagnosis of cancer. As I left the department I couldn't help but wonder if the other women who had been there will have had further invasive tests and an anxious wait for answers, before being given the life-changing diagnosis of cancer. 

I walked back to my car in the pouring rain, feeling drained and exhausted, but relieved. I began to feel so grateful for the NHS, marvelling at its efficiency and ability to work despite everything that is being done to systematically dismantle it (my own view, obviously). 
Then on my way home, as I experienced the gratitude,  I had this voice in my heart, asking me to pay it forward. 
So I stopped at a petrol station, checked my tyre pressures, then went into the shop. I randomly picked a petrol pump, then asked to pay for that person's fuel. The assistant was surprised but played along with me - I didn't want the man who had just filled his car to know that it was me who had paid for his fuel. I just felt so grateful: to know that I was clear of something that could have been dramatically and catastrophically life-changing for me (as a single parent I am forever aware that I have to be well, fit, healthy and able to care for my children. Being unwell is simply not an option for me). On the receipt I wrote, "Have a good day. Pay it forward. From Nikki".
The look on the man's face as I saw him pull away out of the station was a picture. I loved this: the thrill of making a difference to someone else warmed my bones. Random acts of kindness bring about physiological and psychological effects, and being kind has benefits which can be far-reaching, especially if they are paid forward. In light of the tragic events that have been happening recently, I want to encourage as many people as possible to #payitforward in order to share these feelings and experiences. I paid that person's fuel bill to help him, request that he do something to help someone else, to spread the love (oxytocin), and in gratitude of our marvellous, amazing NHS. 
T h a n k   Y o u 

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Let's Talk About Sex: Mindful Parenting

Picture, if you will, this scene: Me, in the kitchen, cooking dinner whilst sipping on a freshly-poured glass of red wine, dipping some crusty bread into a balsamic and olive oil dip (on my 8 year-old's request, who casually informed me that "Balsamic is my favourite sauce, Mum", which made me chuckle, not least because it triumphs over the discussion he had with his big sister earlier today in a cafe about the difference between dulce de leche and chocolate spread, rendering my kids painfully middle-class and me totally to blame for the whole thing). Whilst I stirred, quaffed and dipped, I was also strumming on my acoustic guitar, one leg up on a chair, trying to remember the chords to It Must Be Love by Madness, and somewhat failing.

Then, in strolls my daughter, age 12, clutching at my 24 year-old copy of the hefty hardback
Pathophysiology: The Biologic Basis For Disease in Adults and Children, which she had extracted from the bookshelf today to have a good look at. This is one of the books I would hug close to me, in the vague hope that I would somehow find the miracle of osmosis passing on information to transfer into cerebral knowledge without me having to study for hours on end, sweating over the pain of rote learning. So I felt a sense of joy at seeing my girl interested in this book, a contradiction to my utter heart-sink moments at having to read through pages and pages to try to find the answers to questions or a nugget to use in reference to an assignment during my training (oh, how different things would have been to me if the internet was in use when I was studying).

"Mum", she says, placing the book noisily on the table, as I see her biceps quiver in relief. "I have questions."
Ah! I thought. I can help here. I am fundamentally Good At Questions. "Fire away, my love" I said, stirring my bolognese with a confident gusto, enough to splash sauce over the tiles at the back of the hob. "What is it that you wish to know?"

"Well..." she began, gingerly, whist flicking through the pages of the book. "I am confused. What is going on HERE?". She pointed animatedly at the page of the reproductive system, showing foetal development of the sex organs. I suddenly begin to realise I am in interesting territory. Unperturbed, I take a sip of red wine, and continue. "Ah, OK, so you're confused about how a baby's gender is determined? Well, here it says that at 7 weeks gestation -"
"What's gestation, mum?"
"- Gestation is the term used to describe the development of the baby, called a foetus, whilst it's growing in the womb"
"Oh". I feel confident. This is going well. I take another sip of wine and a deep breath. Not at the same time though, as that would be silly.
"So," I continue, "As you can see from these very detailed diagrams, here is development at 7 weeks, but here, at 40 weeks, the gender of the baby has been determined and is fully developed. But it is of course down to DNA that decides the gender of the baby". A moment of acknowledged silence. I pause all stirring, strumming and sipping has ceased, in order to give my daughter the detail she is asking for, but wondering what is coming, next. I begin to feel just a teeny bit nervous, as she continues to flick through the pages, and chapters. Then I realise where we are heading. Oh God, I thought, taking a bigger, braver quaff of wine.
"Mum....what is this? It looks disgusting!"
"Oh, that?!" I said, loftily yet injecting an air of teacher-ness intojj the mix. Must stay on top of the situation, I thought. Must not show fear. She is pointing at a photo of a syphilis chancre on a penis.
I take another gulp of rioja. And then I take 2 mindful, grounding, deep breaths.
"That" I said, weakly, then clearing my wine-lined throat. "Is what is known as a Sexually Transmitted Infection."
Silence. For 8 seconds. 8 seconds of pondering.
"Hmm" Said my daughter. "How did that happen?"
"Well" I said, going back to my stirring of bolognese, feeling strangely relaxed. That rioja is wonderful, I mused, as I thought about how to continue the conversation.
"You see" I began, "when people decide that they want to um, have sex with each other, sometimes they don't share the right stuff, and do share the wrong things. Syphilis is one of a number of infections that can be passed on to couples when they have sex, if they choose not to use protection from infections and contraceptives". At this point, my 8 year-old son walks in. "What's contraceptive? Ugh, what's that a photo of? Ugh, it's a PENIS!" Cue giggling that would befit a Minion movie. "Ha! I just said PENIS"
I inwardly wince. Christ almighty...
"Yes, contraceptive" I continued, "Is what men and women use to stop the woman becoming pregnant. Because..." Oh God, I thought, I have landed myself in choppy waters, now. "Because...umm...sometimes, people like to have sex with each other because it feels really good - not just to have a baby." There was a silence. The bolognese sat on the hob, muttering its own nuances on the topic that was distracting the creator away from it, causing some bottom-burning on the pan. I realised just in time, that this was the cue to take me out of the discomfort that was edging from my toes, to my knees, to my chest and to my face, leading me to feel all hot and uncomfortable for the briefest of moments.
"Ugghhhhhh!" both children chime in fascinated disgust. My daughter flicks over a few pages, to look at photos of genital warts. Oh, bloody fantastic, I thought. We're on to Herpes. "Look, mum! How did that happen to him?"
"Because at some point he didn't use a condom" I reply nonchalantly, breaking spaghetti into boiling water and for a millisecond wondering why I hadn't done the same, all those 13 years ago.
"What's a condom?" My 8 year old asks. I explain. He looks at me as if I am telling him about dancing unicorns in the enchanted forests of some unknown world. "It's like a special balloon that a man puts on his penis and catches the sperm to stop it reaching the lady's egg in her womb. It also stops infections spreading between each person during sex" I explain. "Oh" He said, and I believe he understands me. I feel jubilant. I'm handling this so well. Much, much better than I thought I would. But that's because I'm a nurse and I can handle this, I reassure myself, taking another sip of wine.
"SO," I continued, in my teacher/mum voice. "One thing you need to remember, is that just because you can't see it, it doesn't mean it's not there. Like HIV" I said.
"What's that? Is that like AIDS?" My daughter asks. "No, it's not AIDS. It's a germ that can be passed from one person to another when they have sex, but wearing a condom helps to stop that from happening, as well as passing sperm on which can make a baby". Is this going well? I ask myself. "I don't know, is it?"My inner voice replies, impatiently. Apparently satisfied, both children saunter off to the lounge to watch CBBC, which at that point, means my work is done.
I realise something rather magnificent has happened, here. My biology bible, the book that gave me neck and shoulder strain as I commuted from Green Lanes to Waterloo to get to uni, all those years ago, the book that has seen 5 house moves, a marriage, two babies, a divorce and a life re-boot, has just opened up a brilliant dialect between me and my children. It has enabled open, honest, relaxed (ish) conversation about sexually transmitted infections, a subject many parents struggle with , and I have nailed it. Sort of. I know that this isn't the end of it. In fact, it's the beginning. I am happy to chat to my children about this subject. They need to know. De-mystifying it is far better than shrouding it like a confusion condom, preventing good quality, informed decision-making and correct information. I, as a parent, have a duty to teach my children about safe sex, to teach them that sex is good, fun, but to be treated reverently and with the deepest respect on all levels for it to be safe and successful, as well as for them to know that there are infections and illnesses that can cause big consequences if the wrong choices are made. I tell my children often that I am happy to answer all questions and take away that layer of mystery and fear. That is my mindful approach to parenting. I could never have imagined, however, that McCance and Huether would ever be referenced in a conversation with my children about what safe sex is.
Now, where's that rioja bottle...?

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Failing our children is failing to secure their future

I am a single mum to my 8 year-old son and 12 year-old daughter. We live in a lovely house, in a beautiful coastal town. I work hard to keep us in our home: I work part time as a nurse in A&E; I have my budding business teaching mindfulness and meditation to adults and as a Connected Kids™ tutor and trainer; and I do airbnb. In combination, I probably work around 70-80 hours a week, with the majority of those hours unpaid. 
Having experienced homelessness as a child and the effects this had on the mental health of my mother, I conscientiously  work at my connection to my children. I want to know what's happening in their lives, so in an effort to do so, we eat our meal together at the table, talking about our day. Sometimes they don't want to talk to me, as they would prefer to eat dinner in front of the TV. I indulge that in them sometimes, but I don't like it. The evening meal we share together is often the only time we get to discuss the good and the bad stuff that has happened in our day. I listen to them telling me all about their boring lessons, their exciting lessons, the current Year 7 politics (in an often surreal realm all of its own, I can assure anyone who isn't in the know); I listen and laugh at the daft jokes they learned. 
I listen to their worries and we try to problem-solve together. I tell them snippets of what I deal with in my work in A&E. They always want to know these two things:

1. Whether anyone vomited down the back of my scrub top (this is a real trauma, which I will never, ever forget)
2. Whether I saw lots of blood and gory stuff (what is it about gore with kids?!)

 They also love to hear about the work I do with my mindfulness clients. I do lots of fun stuff with kids to help teach them how to connect with their feelings and to train their minds. My kids like to hear the success stories, to hear what stuff we do. I like to tell them, because it makes me feel proud. It also teaches them that I can do the stuff I do because I believe in what I do and love to see the positive results. Having said that, I did once take my daughter along to a meditation talk with her teachers on their staff development day. Seeing her mum in work mode freaked her out. I tried not to take it personally when she told me she didn't like me in work mode.
After dinner our routine involves a bedtime read. I am proud of the fact that my 12 year-old still wants me to read to her each night, as we all snuggle up together and read a book. We take it in turns to read, nowadays: a great and privileged thing indeed. I love to hear my 8 year-old read to me, especially as up until about a year ago, to him books were "boring" and I'd be lucky to get him to read a paragraph. Now he reads pages. 
We've read and discussed all sorts - from Michael Morpurgo's Warhorse, to David Walliams' Grandpa's Great Escape; Malala Yousafsai's I am Malala; fairly soon bedtime reading is going to evolve into the evening bookclub, where I am determined to keep this up for as long as possible; or at least until the masses of homework and exam revision bleeds into that precious time we have as a family each night. 

This concerns me on three levels: 

1. As a parent - I value and treasure the little time we do have as a family. As a single parent I am often acutely reminded of how difficult family life can be: to try to manage the every day stuff can be a challenge, let alone when a curve-ball sploshes into the mix. So single-handedly helping my children with their homework and exam revision, on top of my own work and home life frankly boggles my brain. I'm not sure how I'm going to fit everything in and still have time to connect with my children on a level that doesn't involve the angst of maths, science and English, creating a 3D model of a WW2 allotment or somehow cleverly illustrating inequality in the Victorian social classes, as I navigate through the hardships of being a mother to one or two teenagers on every level, whilst  I deal with my own existential crises. Meditation is going to take on an even greater role in my life!

2. As a healthcare professional - stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders - mental health problems amongst children and young people is increasing. The findings of the Office for National Statistics Insights into Children's Mental Health and Well-being (October 2015) report on the most up to date, comprehensive data from 2004 showed that:
  • 1 in 10 children aged between 5-16 years had a clinically diagnosed mental health disorder, with 11% of boys and 8% of girls with a mental health diagnosis
  • the prevalence of mental health issues increased with age
  • Girls were more likely to have emotional problems
  • boys were more likely to have conduct or hyperactivity problems
  • The study also found that children with mental health disorders were more likely than those without to have time off school, including unauthorised absences, and were less likely to have close networks of friends or family
In response to this, in 2015 a new measure of children's mental health was added: the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) from the UK Household Longitudinal Survey (Understanding Society) which showed that:
  • 1 in 8 children aged 10-15 who reported symptoms of mental ill-health in 2011-2012 had measured a high total SDQ
  • Children who quarrelled with their mother more than once per week were three times more likely to report a high or very high SDQ
  • One third of children who were relatively unhappy with their appearance reported a high or very high SDQ
  • Children who spent more than three hours on social media websites on a normal school night were twice as likely to report high or very high SDQ, compared with those who spent less than three hours on social websites
The conclusion, according to the well-being measures of Understanding Society survey, was that bullying and quarrelling with mothers had the strongest associations with mental ill-health. This is consistent with the findings from academic research and previous national surveys of children's mental ill-health. In my work as a nurse I frequently see the results of mental ill-health and see the constraints in managing them, particularly for access to Children and Adolescant Mental Health Services (CAMHS) which is a variable feast in terms of access to, and support from this service. According to The Lightening Review (2015) from the Children's Commissioner :
  • 28% of children were turned away from CAMHS without being offered help, although this varied across the country, suggesting that there is a postcode lottery of mental health service provision across England
  • Waiting times to be seen were widely variable - between 14 days to 200 days, again, depending on the region in England
  • 3,000 children were referred to CAMHS with a life-threatening condition, such as attempts at suicide, self-harm, anorexia and psychosis - of which:
    • 14% were not allocated any help
    • 51% went on a waiting list
    • some waited for over 112 days for access to services

3. As a mindfulness tutor for children. In my work in schools and privately, I see a vast number of children and teens with various mental health issues. I know that what I teach works - I have seen the evidence for myself and audited my work; parents and teachers report improvements in the students I work with. As an individual, I feel great that my skills are helping those I work with. On an operational level, it frustrates me, because there is so little money available for schools and organisations like the NHS to provide this level of support. 

I am so passionate about the work I do with the children I work with. I jump up and down with joy when I see a child come through a dark period in their life through using mindful activities and learning to meditate in order to manage emotions, make sense of feelings, or overcome anxiety or fear; conversely I jump up and down in frustration when I feel like I'm struggling to be seen or heard by the powers that be: too often mindfulness is still regarded as "soft" and not as effective as medicines to treat children's mental ill-health. What is it going to take to enable collaboration between these disciplines and enable a team-around-child approach to mental well-being in schools and in the NHS? 

I can promise you that I am at the front of the queue, waiting - if not chomping at the bit - to get mindfulness training into the clinical setting for paediatric staff to use as a clinical tool in delivering patient care. The Mindfulness All Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG) found evidence that mindfulness training helps children and young people learn to regulate emotions, improve problem-solving, reasoning and memory (MAPPG Mindful Nation, p.30). As well as reduce stress and depression and improve emotional and behavioural regulation, the MAPPG recommend mindfulness training in the education sector to schools, as well as in healthcare, the workplace and in the criminal justice system.

With the education and healthcare sectors feeling the financial pinch and ever increasing need for clinical intervention combined with a lack of training for education staff in managing mental ill-health in pupils; the effects of the decreasing numbers of nurses thanks to Brexit and the scrapping of student nurse bursaries, I am concerned about how we as professionals and as parents can help children and teams work through mental health problems, let alone teach good techniques for coping strategies and life-skills for managing stress and anxiety throughout their lives. Three out of four teachers feel that they are unable to access the support to help their students manage mental health problems. 

If we fail to prepare our children, we are failing to help them secure a positively-assured future. We cannot let this happen. As parents, teachers or healthcare professionals, despite the growing problems we face in tackling this, we have to continue to fight against the grain of resistance, in order to do as much as we possibly can to help these children and teens. We have a duty to do everything we can, and it starts with making that connection with them, in whatever small way we can, and build on it from there. 

Nikki Harman, RGN, Connected Kids™ mindfulness tutor and trainer