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.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Reiki: Stuff and nonsense?

I know that some of my NHS colleagues regard me as "weird" because I practice reiki. To some, it's seen as a sham therapy, it's nonsense, it probably doesn't work, it has no scientific basis and it's a waste of money. 

As a nurse, I work on evidence-based care. I use facts and data to support my work, I analyse information to help gain a clinical picture. 

So I sometimes find it annoying that I practice reiki. I know that sounds weird, too; but the thing is, I often find myself sitting on the fence in contentious issues, because I can see both sides. I often wish I could be more certain, more definite. 
Here's where I am on the reiki fence: One leg either side of it. 
On one side, I see reiki as an unproven modality with little rigorously-tested research to prove that it does (or does not) work. As a critical thinker, I could say that as there is little conclusive evidence, I shouldn't practice it any more.

On the other side of the fence, I have tested it anecdotally and found that reiki has made a difference. An example of me seeing it work in practice is based on a situation where I was asked to give reiki to a patient many years ago, when I worked in an intensive care unit. The patient had suffered a catastrophic head injury. Brain scans revealed that his brain had been irreversibly damaged. Tests on his brain stem, the part of the brain that controls breathing, heart rate, blood pressure - all the basics for survival - had been irreversibly damaged. Tragically, there was no hope for this man. The family, who were devastated, were reaching out for any sign that their loved one could survive, as well as accepting that his life had come to an abrupt end. They were worried that he was in pain. They were told by one of my colleagues that I practised reiki, so asked me to give him some. I was initially reluctant to do so, but they really wanted to give him some comfort, knowing that he was unconscious, on life supporting machines and medicines to keep him alive. I asked the family if it would be acceptable for me to check his observations at the beginning and at the end of the therapy, to see if there were any changes, to which they agreed.
I asked a colleague to do a full set of observations, which included:
  •  blood pressure (which was being continuously measured through an invasive line in his artery, and visible on a monitor next to the patient's bed);
  • heart rate 
  • oxygen levels.
  • The patient's breathing was being controlled entirely by a machine called a ventilator, which was artificially inflating his lungs to deliver oxygen into his body. 
  • My colleague also checked his neurological status, which included:  
  1. pupil reaction to light (his eyes did not react), 
  2. movement (he was unconscious and not making purposeful movement)
  3. response to painful stimuli (he had an abnormal response to pain, showing grossly abnormal brain function). 
She wrote everything down and completed the patient's ICU chart, which had been recording all of these vital signs hourly for the past 2 days. Without looking at her results, I repeated a full set of observations and then began giving the reiki therapy for half an hour (free of charge of course, and with permission from the nurse in charge at the time).
At the end of the session I asked the same colleague to repeat the full set of observations and I did the same. What we discovered was that the heart rate, although still abnormally high, had reduced; the blood pressure had also reduced, despite remaining high; oxygen saturations had improved by 1%; and although the neurological observations were still abnormal, the overall score had improved by 1 point. All of these observations marked a noticeable difference in the data we had in that time-frame. The family were comforted by this, although we knew that the patient was not going to survive.
For me it raised a whole number of questions about how it worked (or was a coincidental finding); how to repeat the test again, whether it would be possible to do further research, and also blew the placebo theory out of the water, because the patient was unconscious and apparently unaware of the fact that he had just received half an hour of therapeutic touch. Although the data was measured and the findings could have implied that something had affected the measurements, there was still no hard evidence to support the theory that reiki therapy had made a difference to the patient.
To this day, I question that situation. For the most part, I believe that the patient benefited from the therapy. I would be interested in conducting further research. Reiki is being offered to cancer patients around the UK, with projects such as the Sam Buxton Sunflower Healing Trust working within the NHS. 
The other interesting thing to note is that recently I was asked by a friend to give some reiki to him. I did so, and picked up a very specific medical side-effect of some treatment he'd been having. I'd had no idea at all from him that this side-effect had occurred, but I had discovered it during the session. I don't do guess-work,  and I don't do cold-readings. But I was spot-on about what I'd picked up. How? I dunno!
Whenever I treat a client, I take a full history, using assessments akin to my nursing work, I write notes and keep them confidentially locked away. I take confidentiality very seriously, adhering to ethics and respect at all times. I never claim to be able to cure anyone of anything. If you ever visit a reiki therapist who makes these kind of claims, walk away from them immediately.
Finally, and importantly, is the subject of money. I don't always charge people. I am often asked by friends and family to give reiki - if I do it's free or at a greatly reduced rate for close friends. For clients I  often under-charge, not because I don't value my work, but because I feel inclined to do so if I know they cannot afford to pay me. For others I combine my work as a mindfulness coach with the session to help the client in a broader sense, encouraging them to take on an interactive role in their own healing. After all, it's their body, they know how they feel. I facilitate the process of being able to tune in to themselves mindfully and work on self-care.
So does reiki work? Not, it would seem, for everyone - some of those I have treated have reported no effects whatsoever. Others have felt amazing results from the treatments. All I can say, is that although I am on the fence, I am leaning more to one side than the other, with the label of weirdness a factor in my leanings. But then again, what's wrong about being weird?!

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.

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