Where’s your village?

“Year 12 farewell assembly. The tradition is they walk up the middle stairs while staff form a kind of honour guard. One student was hanging back and I wasn’t sure why. Then his friend arrived who has a knee injury and can’t handle stairs. He was waiting for her, and he piggy backed her all the way up. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my school!”

On average my facebook posts probably gather 5 likes each. Even the cute pictures of sugar gliders get maybe 10 or so likes. But this post, by the end of a single day, had 44 likes. This story resonates. People go “awww! That’s beautiful!” There is something about people looking out for each other, going a little further to help each other out, and quietly being there for each other, that speaks directly to our hearts.

Do you know why? I think it’s because we know it’s missing from our lives most of the time. In general we live incredibly isolated lives. It’s not that we don’t have friends – most of us do. But we don’t see them every day. We don’t necessarily notice if we don’t speak to them for a few weeks running.  Huge upheavals can happen in their lives without us ever knowing, even though we love them very much.

I don’t believe we do any less, care any less, or love any less. We have friends, we have work, we have busy, busy lives. But what we really don’t have, most of us, is community. Many of my closest friends live 10, 20, or even thousands of kilometers away. We are pretty good at keeping in touch. We call. We email. We facebook. But we don’t live next door. We don’t always notice the pauses in the conversation that might mean something has gone badly wrong, because we are all so busy that pauses happen all the time. Packed into those pauses might be the death of a parent, an episode of depression, even an ambulance trip to the emergency room, and we might never even know.

If you ever find yourself stuck in the middle of the sea
I’ll sail the world to find you
If you ever find yourself lost in the dark and you can’t see
I’ll be the light to guide you

Find out what we’re made of
When we are called to help our friends in need
You can count on me like 1, 2, 3
I’ll be there
And I know when I need it
I can count on you like 4, 3, 2
You’ll be there
‘Cause that’s what friends are supposed to do, oh yeah

Count on me – Bruno Mars.

We don’t know our neighbours beyond a cordial chat when we happen to be getting into our cars at the same time. We certainly don’t drop by to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar. We don’t walk to school and get to know all the families on the way. We don’t shop at the local shops and know the shopkeepers’ children. We live in huge cities and commute from one side to the other for work. We shop at massive shopping centers surrounded by strangers.

George Monbiot argues that this is killing us. In our busy striving for individualism and wealth, we are losing contact with the very things that bring us the deepest satisfaction and contentment. I’m really lucky, I find many of these things at my school, with both staff and students. There is a sense of community there, beautifully exemplified by the piggy back, that fills a vast hole in my life. I can’t imagine leaving, and it breaks my heart a little each time we say goodbye to the next crop of year 12s.

But not everyone can work or study at my school. Not everyone will find their community in their workplace. And whoever we are, however introverted, however independent, we need community. We need that sense of people looking out for us, and that meaning and fulfillment that comes from looking out for others.

I think what we’ve failed to recognise is that friends are not the same as community. Community is, of necessity, a local thing. If you start to feel depressed and can’t bring yourself to call anyone, people who see you every day might notice and have the chance to help. But if your friends are all remote, they’re not likely to notice until the time between phone calls becomes obvious, which could be weeks, or even months. If you break your leg, have a sick child, or a sick parent, and you don’t call for help, community has the chance to notice because of the change in your routine.

The problem is that our cities are built in ways that actively discourage community. Our houses are getting bigger and our fences higher. Our local shopping strips are dying, to be replaced by huge, impersonal shopping centers miles away that we have to drive to. Our public transport, which at least allows us to walk through our neighbourhood on the way to and from our very remote jobs, is slow, erratic, and expensive. Everything about our town planning encourages us out of our neighbourhoods, into our cars, and away from any potential community we might otherwise build.

And the trouble is I think it takes a community to fix it.

Everybody hurts

Recently I was struck by my friend Kaye Winnell’s wise and courageous facebook post:

“I struggle with anxiety and depression, and I have done since the birth of my first baby. Some days, no matter how many pies I bake or kilometres I run, I still feel fat, ugly, lazy and stupid. No matter how many people tell me I otherwise, I still feel worthless, and as if one day the world will find me out, and will realise what a loser I am and that I have just done a really, really good job of hiding it. Some days I am so scared to step out of my car and walk into work I can’t breathe.

But I truly believe that this illness has made me who I am, made me a fighter, made me more compassionate, and helped me understand that what we see on the surface is not always the truth.

We are faulty and human. We are scared and we make mistakes. We screw up our lives sometimes.

If you have similar struggles, be brave and don’t be ashamed. “

It’s really easy, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, to feel as though you’re the only person who has ever felt like this. The whole post is profoundly moving, but the bit about being found out is really striking. In private, tentative conversations I’ve discovered that many of my friends share that feeling. Regardless of how much positive feedback you get, how many awards you win, and how much tangible success you achieve, you may be convinced that none of it is your doing. Sooner or later the world is going to find out that you are actually no good at what you do. You are an imposter. Parachuted into your position by a series of freak chances, in no way are you actually qualified or capable to do your job – whether a profession or parenting. This feeling can be utterly corrosive.

It leaves you intensely vulnerable to any kind of negative feedback, regardless of how constructively it is phrased, because you are always waiting for that moment when the world realizes you don’t belong here.  So anything from a friend canceling a visit, to your boss suggesting that you need to do something differently, can be that proof, and it can drive you to despair in a heartbeat. With a jolt of adrenalin you know that it’s here! You’ve been rumbled! It’s all over now.

If you’re lucky you have someone supportive nearby who can spot this moment and talk you down from the precipice. If you’re even luckier you have learnt some strategies over time for re-educating your hopelessly panicked self-esteem. And if you’re profoundly lucky, you have both. But there will always be days when your support person is absent or distracted and using your own self-rescuing techniques is beyond you, whether it’s because you are tired and run down, or you actually did make a mistake that you feel really bad about, or you’ve had a couple of run-ins with someone who really knows how to tear you into tiny pieces. Some days it would be so easy to give up.

When your day is long
and the night – the night is yours alone
when you think you’ve had too much of this life to hang on
don’t let yourself go, ‘cos everybody cries
and everybody hurts
sometimes

REM, Everybody Hurts

Researchers often claim that women are disproportionate sufferers of imposter syndrome, but I wonder if that’s because men are less likely to admit it and seek help for it. We still send very strong messages in our society that it’s ok for women to seek help, but men have to be strong and independent. Either way, no-one, whether male or female, talks about this much. It’s an intensely vulnerable feeling, and exposing it publicly feels like a huge risk.

So I was really impressed to see Kaye write about this and post it publicly. The more we can be open and honest about our struggles, the easier we make it for everyone struggling around us. You look at the strong, confident leader who sits near you at work, and you don’t hear his brain whispering to him “You’re no good at this. You’ll be found out, and it will be humiliating. And you’ll deserve it.”

You look at the successful, articulate, and assertive manager in the office next door, and you don’t know about those times when she closes her door and lays her head down on her desk, overwhelmed by the feeling that she is out of her depth.

And they don’t see it when you do, either. We’re all so busy being strong and independent, that we make it harder for ourselves, and for everyone around us, when we actually do need help, because we are pretending that we are always strong, always confident, and perpetually in control.

So I’m putting it out there. I suffer from imposter syndrome. I get huge amounts of positive feedback. My children are healthy and happy. My students get amazing results. But sometimes I firmly believe that it’s despite me, not because of me. Sometimes I feel like a giant spanner in the works of life. Logically I know I’m not. Rationally I know I am a good and loving parent, a supportive and encouraging teacher, and someone who gives everything I do everything I’ve got. I’m proud of that. But some days I don’t believe it. Some days I can’t understand why anyone would hire me, or even be friends with me.

But I know this: those days will pass, and they do not define me. Everybody hurts sometimes.

RUOK?

Human beings are remarkably resilient creatures. We crash down, but we also bounce back. Sometimes we are easily overwhelmed, but often it doesn’t take much to rewhelm us (I know that’s not a word, but it should be, ok?!).

Last night I was feeling massively overwhelmed. I have a crazy hectic week at work, something on every night after work (and a work commitment on my one day off). Lots of people want “just one little thing” from me, to the extent that I feel I have farmed out so many pieces of myself that there are none left physically attached. When I am tired I am about as emotionally stable as a house of cards in a hurricane, so it doesn’t take much to bring me down. I was quite convinced that one more demand would tip me right over the edge.

And then I got an email from an enthusiastic student who is doing great work in one of my subjects. He was just talking about the work he and his group were doing, and asking a few pertinent questions, but it gave me a real boost. The project is one I am excited about, and proud to be involved with. This student’s enthusiasm picked me right back up and set me on my feet again.

It was a small thing, but sometimes that’s all you need.

Sometimes there are days when the pick me up never comes, but the blows seem to accumulate. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we are alone in the world, that no-one else has ever felt this way, and that things could not possibly get better.

Sometimes everything is wrong
Now it’s time to sing along
When your day is night alone (Hold on, hold on)
If you feel like letting go (Hold on)
If you think you’ve had too much
Of this life, well hang on

Everybody hurts
Take comfort in your friends
Everybody hurts
Don’t throw your hand, oh no

Everybody hurts, REM.

You can usually see it when someone is having one of those days. It shows up in the set of their shoulders. In their tone of voice. In the unconvincing way they say “fine, thanks” when you ask how they are. Sometimes all it takes is a light “that’s not very convincing!” and genuinely listening to their response. It’s embarrassing, for some even humiliating, to cry in public, and there are days when even honest answers to sincere questions can seem out of our reach. Sometimes reaching out for help is just too hard. So we pretend everything is fine while drowning in our private misery, and feel utterly alone in the middle of a crowd of people who would support us if only they knew.

So take the time today to make eye contact with someone. To smile, ask how they are, and take interest in their response. Sympathise with someone who’s going through a tough time. Maybe even ask if someone nearby needs a hug (there’s nothing better than touch therapy).

It might just change a life.

Positively Balanced

Sometimes it seems as though my life is a balance scale – positive things pile up in one basket, negative in the other.  When the positive outweighs the negative I am high, but when the negative is heavier I come crashing down. At times life tips so much flaming garbage into the negative basket that it’s hard to imagine ever being up again.  Death, grief, trauma, illness, conflict – they can all conspire against us from time to time, and it’s only natural to feel overwhelmed.

Untitled drawingAt which point what can you do but wallow in how life has mistreated you? It all seems too hard. You either have enough happiness to balance the scale and lift you up or you don’t. It’s outside your control, right?

Well, actually, no. We have the power to choose what’s in those baskets. Not totally, of course. You can’t always throw the negative stuff out. Some of it is inescapable, and ongoing. That weight does drag us down. The overall balance, though, is something we can influence. If we spend our time inspecting the contents of the negative basket in excruciating detail – focusing on everything that’s wrong with our lives and how miserable it’s all making us – we can actually wind up making them heavier.

The good news is that we can also make the positive basket weigh more, by choosing to put the good stuff back in. Get a positive email from your boss? Save it, print it out, maybe even frame it. Got a birthday card that makes you smile? Put it somewhere you can see it every day, and keep it there regardless of how long ago your birthday was. Feeling good about how much you’ve achieved today? Take the time to appreciate what you’ve done. Created something beautiful lately? Solved a tricky problem? Done something you’ve been postponing for months? Share it with a friend who will appreciate what you have accomplished.

The positive basket fills up quickly with help from others. One of the fastest ways is to do something to help someone else, even something simple like taking chocolate to a work mate who is having a bad day, or giving a flower to someone you see on your morning walk. You’ll make them happier, and they’ll very likely smile at you, or even hug you, which will weight the positive basket nicely.

Direct, real-life contact with people is more effective than the online variety. We are programmed to mirror the feelings we see in front of us – it’s very hard not to smile when someone smiles at you, and physical contact provides endorphins and oxytocin to give us a boost. Even a simple handshake is worth more than a comment on your status update on facebook, and a high five is a priceless mood-booster.

Simple rituals can help, too. Even something as basic as finding three things you are thankful for every morning (check out the Thankful Thing), or looking in the mirror and saying three things you like about yourself. These things feel forced at first, but like a forced smile, they trigger a positive response whether we want them to or not.

It’s really easy to throw away the good bits of life and cling to the trauma. There are times when it’s almost unavoidable. But we need to remember that there are always good things around, if we only take the time to notice them. When my Dad died I was overwhelmed by the love and support shown by my friends and work mates. It’s been a tough time, but I have a strong sense of community that I didn’t have beforehand. I don’t want to get all Pollyanna on you and argue that every cloud has a silver lining. Some clouds are toxic all the way through. But there is always sunshine somewhere. We just have to remember to see it.

* this post was partly inspired by this. Check it out.

You talking to me?

Sometimes I get a little down, a little too stuck inside my own head, and I start to believe my own negative publicity. At these times I tend to view everything through grey-tinted glasses. Every negative thing that happens is directed at me. Every grumpy face is my fault. Some days even  The Thankful Thing can’t pull me out of it, because there is a little voice in my head telling me I’m not good enough, and I am paying it way too much attention.

I’ve been lucky, though, because I have learnt to recognise that little voice for what it is: a lying little toad, bent on my destruction. Ok, maybe that’s a bit strong, but the one thing you can say for sure about that little voice is that it is not accurate. Reality is a matter of perspective, and when your perspective is skewed, you can lose contact pretty easily.

Psychologists dealing with the chronically depressed often advocate challenging that voice – asking yourself how realistic it is. Is it true that nothing ever goes right for me? Can I find a single example of someone who doesn’t hate me? Was that earthquake really my fault? That sort of thing.

Of course, when you are miserable and making yourself more so, finding the space to draw breath and ask yourself those questions can be tough. It’s much easier to keep spiralling downwards than to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. That’s where meditation comes in. Even if you don’t practice it regularly, it can provide that breathing space and allow you room to ask those questions. Even if the closest you get to meditation is staring at the trees waving in the wind from time to time, it can be surprisingly strengthening, and allow you to take a positive perspective.

It’s all about self-talk. Self-talk can quickly drag you to rock bottom:

“I’ll never get a job,” “I’m just a fat slob”, “nobody likes me”, “It’s all too hard,”

but used consciously it can also drag you back up:

“I will get a job”, “I look great”, “I am loved”, “I am strong and I can do this.”

In trying to persuade my daughter to be more positive, I have started to become more aware of my own self-talk. Unsurprisingly it is strongly correlated with my state of health, but that doesn’t mean it’s outside my control.  If I can become aware of my self-talk, then I can change it.

There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full say “this glass is half full.” And then there are those who say “this glass is half empty.”

The world belongs however, to those who can look at the glass and say “What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full. And it was a bigger glass!”

Terry Pratchett. The Truth.

One of the worst things about negative self-talk is its impact on our relationships with others. If you are constantly talking yourself down, then any negative sentiment (real or imagined) coming from someone else receives an enthusiastic cheer squad inside your own head. “When will you have that report done?” becomes “He’s mad at me for being so slow. God I’m hopeless!” “I don’t think that’s a good idea” becomes “She thinks I’m stupid. Of course she does, I’m such a loser!”

These are extreme examples, but we talk to ourselves this way a lot. Maybe it’s just me, and none of my readers will identify with any of this – but I suspect that’s the little toad talking.

I’m going to go out and get myself a bigger glass. What are you saying to yourself?

Energy in = Energy out?

Under stress it makes sense to pull back on all non-essential activities. Whether we’re recovering from illness or dealing with trauma, we have limited resources. Spending energy on something that is pure recreation might seem frivolous, or even selfish. This relies on a solely physical equation: Energy in = energy out. It’s logical to try to cut out anything that uses up energy.

Recently I’ve been dealing with a lot of stress, both physical and emotional. I have (mostly) responded sensibly – curtailing my cycling, skipping choir practice to rest, and going to bed early rather than going out with friends.

As the stress increased, I found myself itching to get back on my bike. One day, only a little over 4 weeks after major surgery, I couldn’t rest because I was twitchy from the day’s traumas. I was exhausted and wanted nothing more to sleep, but I was buzzing from all the adrenalin and stress toxins screaming through my system.

“Stuff it!” I thought, “I’m going to do the school run on the bike.” BOOM. Instant energy boost. Wait. What? Physically unwell, lacking energy, feeling miserable, so I spent energy. And I got back more than I spent. Intuitively that feels a little like handing over $20 and getting $50 change. It doesn’t happen. It must have been a mistake. It certainly doesn’t happen twice!

Insanity laughs under pressure we’re breaking
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance
Why can’t we give love that one more  chance
Why can’t we give love
Give love give love give love give love
Give love give love give love
Love’s such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves

But it turns out that the human mind is a peculiar beast. So is the human body, come to that. Sometimes you need to take it out of itself and distract it in order to break the cycle of stress and fatigue. If you are weak and have no energy, you need to build your muscles by working out at a sustainable level. And if you are stressed and have no energy, you need to build your coping muscles, by doing things that make you feel good.

In some ways it’s like providing your body and mind with a blueprint for happiness. You get stuck in a cycle of trauma and misery, so you tell your body: “Feel that? Good, isn’t it? That’s what feeling happy is like. Want some more?”

This is our last dance
This is ourselves
Under pressure

Queen – Under Pressure

So this week I’ve done a whole lot more cycling. I took time out to go to choir practice. I organised coffee with a friend today when I really should have been getting stuff done. And it was all 100% worth it. I am calmer and more in control. I can laugh at the annoying things my kids do, instead of exploding. I can move past the stress and get on with my life, even though the cause hasn’t disappeared.

It’s really easy, when things get challenging, to say “I can’t make time to look after myself. I have to look after everyone else.” It may sound terribly altruistic and brave, but in reality it’s a road to nowhere. If your own heart and soul aren’t intact, how can you support anyone else? You wind up making mistakes, and causing more suffering to the people around you, than if you’d taken that hour to sit by the pond, ride your bike, or go to choir practice.

It turns out that you have to spend energy to make energy. It’s not only sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care.

Just being there

I recently read this powerful piece on getting through depression. Seema Duggal writes eloquently of the power of support – of her need for friends to simply be there by her side while she struggled with her illness.

” It may have been my journey, but I needed people in my ring, cheering me on as I took the punches.”

Some people suffer more than their share of trauma in life. It is exhausting to care for someone like that – there are times when simply being an observer of that kind of life can feel like too much effort. I know I have sometimes felt that way about others – and I suspect that people have often felt it about me.

We have crazy, hectic lives. We tend not to know our neighbours, or even have time to hang out in the school yard meeting other parents. We fly by the school, horn screaming, slowing down just enough for the kids to leap in before we hurtle around the corner. Or the kids go to before and afterschool care, and there aren’t any other families around at pickup time.

With extra-curricular activities, both for kids and adults, the weekends are too full for play dates or coffee. It’s all we can do to keep the wheels of life turning before we crash, exhausted into bed. We have no time or energy to expend on supporting others.

I doubt that many of us would choose to setup our lives that way, or be up front about saying that we just can’t be there for anyone else. But there is probably more truth to the description than any of us are really comfortable admitting.

Supporting people going through trauma, especially anti-social trauma like depression, is hard work. Although it doesn’t necessarily take much physical effort – regular phone calls or extra hugs aren’t so hard to provide – the emotional effort can be huge. Yet the curious thing is that supporting others can actually be a way of supporting ourselves.It can make us feel connected and needed. That sense of community, of being there for each other, and knowing that there are people around you who will catch you when you fall, is increasingly absent, especially in city life.

hugging wombats

As an atheist, there is much about organised religion that I dislike, yet its power to bring people together and create communities is something that our secular society seems to have thrown out with the bath water. I don’t believe that religion is correlated with caring – there are good, caring people within and without religion all over the world. What organised religion provides is a structure around which community is easily created.

We are all quick to express our horror when tales emerge of someone dying, alone and forgotten, and not being discovered for weeks or months on end. We condemn the society that allows that to happen. Yet we are all complicit in maintaining exactly that sort of society, as we hurtle through our busy lives.

I don’t know what the answer is for society as a whole. I suspect it will take a radical lifestyle shift to change things, and whether that is even possible is more than I know. On a personal level, though, there is more we can all do to reach out to the people around us. To make time for phone calls and coffee. To ask for help when we need it – no easy task – and to step up when the people we care about are struggling.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by someone else’s trauma, and be paralysed into doing nothing. Sometimes that first step of reaching out can feel like jumping off a cliff – risking rejection, or being seen as interfering – but the rewards can be incredible. Some of the greatest friendships in my life have arisen from the fire and ashes of the worst times. Sometimes I have reached out to others, and sometimes they have reached out to me. Either way the bonds forged will last a lifetime.

Who have you reached out to lately?