Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Little by Little .... getting our lives back

There has been a lot of discussion on the media and throughout social media about the anticipation greeting some easing of restrictions which we have all grown used to throughout the last 12 months. Having survived a stroke in September 2020 my life has change more radically than I would have thought possible this time last year. What has remained the same for me is my daily use of the same skills I have been using to live in Recovery from long term mental health issues to recover physically from my stroke and to manage the social restrictions of 'lockdown'. With that in mind I wanted to share some thoughts for managing a period of yet more change which started for us in England yesterday. 1. Take your time. As with much of our experience of developing mental health conditions such as depression and long term anxiety disorders, it has taken us some time to adjust to the radical changes to our behaviour over the past twelve months. Given the alien nature of many of the measures taken to protect not only ourselves, but also others around us, we need to reflect and ask ourselves some questions which I admit to borrowing from the day of Reflection on 23rd March. Firstly, what have we gained that we want to keep? For me, as someone who is happy with my own company I have found the lack of pressure to 'be more sociable' has been liberating whilst growing my circle of friends through meeting up online and then making arrangements as one to one walks became my main physical fitness activities. It has been noticeable over the past month that our parks and common walking spaces are again filling up with a lot of groups of people. This, for me, feels uncomfortable. Mostly I have been going into supermarkets with a confidence which has previously been elusive, both mask wearing and social distancing have made going into shops and other public spaces less daunting for me, so in a sense I have been able to venture more often into places I had avoided in the past. 'Going back to normal' is not without its challenges for me, so I need to take my time and adjust to the influx of people into public spaces.
2. Be prepared to feel exhausted. One of my early bosses, an Australian with a formidable zest for life, used to tell me, the only humans who relish change are babies with dirty nappies! Change happens all the time, but more often than not, it is usually natural, gradual and doesn't make us feel completely out of control. For a year, we have grappled with the reality of a virus which it seemed was entirely out of any human ability to control. Alongside that governmental efforts nationally and internationally have seemed to some over the top and to others (usually those with first hand experience of the effects of the virus) not enough and not for long enough. Due to the emotional impact of living with untold thousands of deaths daily, as well as the emotions involved in hoping for something to happen to stop the deaths and illness, we are emerging from lockdown feeling exhausted. Those of us who have managed mood disorders understand that emotions are exhausting. And that means that rushing headlong towards positive feelings may not be the most helpful idea. Take time to grieve what has been lost. To return to my questions: what have you lost that you would be able or want to get back? Be realistic has the past year forced change which when you reflect on it, whilst difficult to go through has been necessary and brought you to a better place? 3. Keep your Connections. Connecting is one of the #5waysofwellbeing and one of the benefits of a period of national mourning and need is that it has opened up opportunity for deeper relationships, because we have been faced with some realities about our own mortality and the limits of our power to control or influence the world around us, on our own. My recovery journeys, both mental and physical have not been done in isolation, a network of friends and professionals have helped me along my way. In the same way, maintaining our health when the crisis is over will depend on us, corporately and in community, continuing to maintain our connections through which we have managed to support one another over the past twelve months. When you can remember to take time to keep up with new friends and friendships made through this time and be grateful for kind neighbours and supportive friends. 4. Keep your awareness going. For months we have waited and watched. Perhaps, we have noticed more about the pressures and needs of our public servants: Doctors, Nurses, Police, Pharmacists, Teachers. As isolation and lockdown forced us to manage our own health and education needs, perhaps we have a greater awareness of what they face each and every day. I hope that it will make us more tolerant of the burdens many people we complain about not doing their jobs, face yet continue serving us. I recently watched a documentary about the life and death of Caroline Flack, in early 2020 before the Covid pandemic exploded. The hashtage #bekind trended all over the world. HOwever, harshness and intolerance seems to be no less prevalent and the impact of social media continues to fuel a high degree of risk of suicide, especially among certain age groups. Just because you have the ability and forum to speak, doesn't mean that you should - unless you have something that helps, rather than damages other human beings. Acknowledging that my behaviour has a direct impact on others around me, is to begin to create networks which can be safer, not only in preventing infectious diseases, but in helping to tackle the epidemic of despair. Before you post or get caught into criticising someone whose shoes you don't walk in, think, what have I learned this year about how difficult life can be for others who are different from me?
5. Be gentle. With yourself, with your family, neighbours and even with those who have had so much responsibility for having to manage an impossible situation, locally, nationally, globally. 6. Go back to basics. One of the changes I had to manage following my stroke was to think about driving again. The good thing I learned was that, having had a clot rather than a bleed, my stroke did not mean that I had to consider giving up my licence and that after four weeks I would have been free to drive again. However, even though my memory wasn't damaged to any great extent, rememberinng to drive did take some focus and effort. I went back to the fundamentals I remembered from learning to drive. I started slowly, waiting for the 'bite' on the clutch and soon, muscle memory took over. As we aim to get back to where we left off, let's look at the basics. What do you need to live a life you believe is worth living? Firstly, acknowledge what we all need to survive and I'm not talking about toilet roll...food, water, sleep, shelter. Then what gives your life meaning? Family, relationships, a faith in something bigger, being able to help others? In a sense, more than anything else 2020/21 has been an opportunity to push 'stop' on the treadmill and to reset, having reviewed what matters. Just because we might be allowed to go somewhere by a certain date, doesn't mean we should. What will rushing headlong back into holidays abroad add to my life, that time spent away from the four walls around me, doing refreshing activities in my own country wouldn't? As with any setbacks in life, we can decide to run away from it and all the lessons we have learned or, we can choose to embrace what the Pandemic has offered to us in terms of shaking us up and showing us what matters and what gives our life meaning and hope.

Thursday, 31 December 2020

So, THAT happened

As I write I've reached the end of another year, 2020. I know that is has been 'challenging' in so many ways for so many people. You will have noticed that once again this is the first article in a very long time and to be honest with you the reason for that is because once again, I have been reminded of my frailty, physically and emotionally. In short, I don't remember much of September and October because on 11th September, I suffered a stroke and was rushed to hospital. I am told I was found in my bedroom with my dog lying beside me. Friends had been trying to contact for nearly 24 hours and the police had to break into my house so the ambulance crew could get in.
The fact is, I don't remember anything before I awoke in the Stroke Rehab Unit of my local hospital in mid October, but my friends and family unfortunately are only too aware of what they watched me go through as I survived first the ICU and then the move to Rehab, all the time wondering if I would ever a) wake up b) be able to speak c) walk again. In the end I have been unaware completely, except for some seemingly vivid dreams of having to be manhandled around the wards, or being woken and becoming agitated. I have remained oblivious of the seriousness of my condition at that time. I remember the week before the stroke feeling dizzy and unwell with a stubborn headache which refused to shift. On the day before I walked the dog for four miles and remember returning home and phoning a friend because I was worried by the headaches. I don't remember our final conversation which worried her. But I must have gone upstairs feeling ill and gone to my bed. I know I have written often about recovery in terms of mental health, but never did I expect to put my DBT skills to such direct use in addressing a life threatening condition and beginning the slow process of addressing aspects of my lifestyle which had led to a clot on the brain. However, first in coping with the trauma of a near death experience and then in beginning to acknowledge (accept) what behaviours and habits I needed to change I found that those skills I have been using since 2011 when I was first diagnosed have been so helpful in guiding me through all the competing thoughts and medical opinions. Above all, my experience has confirmed my personal faith in a God who never felt so real to me than when I was reflecting in my hospital bed on how miraculous my recoery has been. I know that I was surrounded by so much love and so many prayers for my life and recovery that I can only conclude that 'someone' answered. That is my personal conviction and I know that the character that has been built over the earlier decades of my life brings me hope for the future. Covid, naturally was a big part of the hospital experience as first on the ward, then in a Old People's Home where I went to finish my recuperation, people started to test positive and this, in reality was as close as I'd come this year to the pandemic. As a result of my experiences this year I find myself reassessing my prioritising of job hunting and the stress and pressure I've put on myself to comply with society's pressures to make my life 'worthwhile'. I now need to learn to value my worth in terms of the quality of my relationships and judging from the wonderful response of those I love the most, I am worth caring for = in the words of a mug a received this Christmas - I am loved outrageously!

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Accepting Love - The hardest task of all

I think I've shared before a picture of the traumatised child which explains how hard it is for adoptive and foster parents to successfully give that child an experience of unconditional love. A friend who is an adoptive Mum shared it with me and at the time it resonated powerfully with me. When someone has been shown nothing but proof that they are worthless, when a care-giver seeks to pour love into the cup of that personality finds the love running off without even touching the inside. This is because all that has gone before, the trauma itself, the coping strategies and the fundamental frameworks of belief about themselves as worthwhile human beings serves to form an often invisible film stretching over the whole of the mouth of the cup.

I have spent the past ten years of my life slowly working to remove that film from myself. I know that in reality some who have tried to break through it have encountered, not a feather light, flimsy film, which lets in light, but steel shutters. What I have learned to accept in the past few months is that despite learning a lot about trusting others, the key to opening these shutters lies entirely in my own hands. It is not enough for me to acknowledge that love is being given to me, but for me to accept, without reservation or justification that I am loved. There are many moments on the path to recovery from childhood traumas which are paradoxically painful and healing at the same time. No human love is perfect, nor is it without risk.

Because in reality there is no human being who can love us perfectly. But when we begin to accept that we can love ourselves without feeling like frauds, then we can begin to move towards receiving love as it is intended. For me, I know I have shared before that I have a faith in a God who is bigger than me and all my problems and one of the main things that I have learned to accept is that my belief tells me, I am loved because I exist. Simple as that. One of my favourite thoughts of this year has been: 'The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but YOU ARE, because the party wouldn't be complete without you.'

With healing I can now see that life is not all bad, but there are also good things in life. Some of those good things exist in me and my personality and/or abilities and gifts. And some people, not all actually think I'm worth loving. Again, this has been a long hard path to accept. As I wrote the word 'loving' I battled myself because my instinct was to find a less powerful word, such as 'like', or 'appreciate'. How many times do we stop ourselves accepting love as it is given, by changing its strength in our minds, minimising what the giver has intended? How many times have friends and loved ones tried to reinforce the positive things they see to love in us, and found themselves frustrated by our reverting to our (comfortable) old patterns, minimising what is good in us. 'Oh anyone could do that', or my favourite one 'You're just flanneling me'.

Funny how easy it is to believe in the absolute truth of critical opinions given to us or in our own minds, but how easy we find it to undermine positive praise for who we are and what we do. It's a natural consequence of not being given validation as children. Self validation because an alien concept and a skill we need to be taught later in life.

I have had to look at the negative thoughts and critical voices from my past which constantly circulated in my mind and decide if they are something that I want to listen to, or if I am willing to listen to the (admittedly) strange and novel, voices that tell there is a balance to things. Sometimes I mess things up, sometimes I do really well.

Over the past few weeks I have been wrestling with positive thoughts, because they feel odd and sometimes accepting them means something painful. I am learning that I can do things I never thought possible, that I can build webs of friends and I can cope when the ups and downs of human relationships happen. I am not shaken to my core because I disagree with someone, because receiving love means that I accept there is core of belonging within the relationships which means we can cope with 'falling out'. This is a new experience. Such little blips in reality, would in the past have meant me walking away for fear of rejection. Now they are the warp and weft of accepting that I am loved, which in turn frees me to feel love for others, without fearing the pain of having that love rejected.

So here I am saying, the steel doors are opening and I choose to receive the love that is offered to me. I know I haven't arrived and my recovery means that I continue to take one step forward when I can. As long as the movement continues forward, then I can say that my heart which has been frozen for fear of the risks involved in connecting with others, is melting. If that's sappy - so be it.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Recovery Interrupted?

One of the occupying concerns I have had since social distancing was implemented in the UK, has been for those who have been attending our weekly community group. Online I have ongoing contact with many more in terms of numbers. However, I am aware of the needs of face to face contact and encouragement particularly for those who are waiting for referrals, or for those who are in the process of recovering from mental health issues, which means our group meetings have built (or were in the process of building) relationships which serve to support our members manage mental health in their daily lives.

We are doing our best to keep connected, but with the best will in the world, connection and relationships cannot be fully healed without the ability to meet up and read mood and body language. Easier for someone to shrug off low moods when online or through distancing messaging and go back into our cocoons. Never has it been easier for people to mask their emotional and mental struggles, particularly those of us who live alone.

This has been brought home to me through the rise in statistics around domestic abuse and some cases of people dying alone at home from Covid-19. Both physical illness and domestic abuse are major contributors to poor mental health.

So let's be more alert for signs that would normally go unnoticed.

1) We are all social distancing so if someone has not been seen out and about for a while that can easily be overlooked. Do you know if your friends are using their opportunity to get outside of their house. Honestly when you are at your lowest, the thought of such activity is almost impossible to contemplate. How can you check on those who live alone and are at risk from neglecting physical care?

2) Have your friends or family disappeared from all social media? Can you check if the green dot appears next to their name? Can you message them privately?

3) When did you last have a meaningful conversation with isolated people that wasn't about the current situation?

4) Do you make times to contact your friends and family to video chat? It is easier to check in if you have made definite arrangements, it also gives both you an opportunity to have appointments again to look forward to.

5) If you are unable to make any contact via distancing means it is reasonable to go to their door and check on them. That would be allowed.

6) All the usual people are available to seek help if you need to ask for it. It may take a different form, but you can still contact the person's GP or phone 111 for advice on what next steps to take. However, if you believe there is an immediate risk to the life of anyone then 999 is your option.

7) It is important that we all monitor our own moods and recognise when we need to ask for help. Again, your GP is still there and can do video chats and if necessary arrange for a face to face appointment. Organisations like the Samaritans have not gone anywhere. They can be contacted through their usual phone number 116 123 from any phone. You can also email if you feel unable to talk: jo@samaritans.org (this takes 24 hours to receive a response)

Above all, whether you are concerned about yourself or others, tell someone and get the help you deserve. Just because we are in the middle of a health crisis caused by a virus there is no competition which says, your needs or health issues are less important. All lives matter and it is okay to not be okay with what is happening around us. That is to be human.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Isolation - surviving on the desert island

'No Man is an island' the words of John Donne have never been more starkly in focus than during the current worldwide battle against a common invisible enemy. A virus has shown up the lies that tell us that we can be divided into different groups, that there is such an entity as 'them' and 'us'. An organism designed to attack human beings is currently ravaging every nation, every race, every creed, every age group, every shape, shade and form of humanity across the world.

I have often thought on and off about ideas of loneliness, isolation and solitude and the different qualities that each can bring to our experience.

At this very moment we are following government instructions to distance ourselves and to avoid social contact outside our homes. In reality we have been forced to put physical walls around behaviours which we have fallen into and which have always forced us into a kind of social distancing before we had a name for it. We have been forced in concrete terms to live out the reality of what impact dividing ourselves from the wider community and world outside our homes can have on us as human beings.

In thinking about what isolation and loneliness can mean to us as human beings I have found that it is helpful to have before me the complete sonnet from which the famous quote comes:

No Man is an island
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were as well as if a manor
Of thy friend's or thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Nowhere is the fragmentation and division within our communities more evident than in our collective response to death. Death and grieving has increasingly become private and individual. One of the most visible impacts of the current outbreak within Northern Ireland was a realisation that traditionally, we as a people, were out of step with much of the UK as we continue to grieve as a community. Families reported the difficulties of facing death without our cultural gathering together not only in emotional and spiritual support, but also in the very practical provision of sustenance to the bereaved. In a sense, the culture I belong to has come face to face with the isolation felt when death comes to call and it is not felt as a wider community.

This pandemic in contrast to our modern response to death has been to reinforce Donne's words, 'Any man's death diminishes me'. If anything, in the regular displays of support for the NHS and the bringing of help by neighbours and community groups is bringing us back to the idea of shared grief, for the first time since WWII. There is a natural desire to care communally which has been stifled by the way we have developed our modern way of living.

We have been living in a fractured world, separated and isolated into political, cultural and religious ghettos. Never more so than in the last five years or so. The danger in this is in believing that I or we don't need anyone else. However, community is not just a good idea but is bound up in our very nature. I am made for connection and my humanity is somehow wounded when I fail to acknowledge this.

Death in reality is the great leveller. It is the one experience that every single one of us will face, young or old, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. It is also the one life experience through which we see starkly our shared humanity. Suddenly in the face of death we are faced with a sense of something sacred about human life, something which day in, day out, in normal times we are able to ignore.

The core issue with loneliness and isolation is that both of these states result from a lack of connection. As we socially distance we are challenged by the fact that it may not be the physical proximity of others that influences how lonely we feel. We all know the moments when we experience being 'lonely in a crowd'. I live alone, so it is not an effort for me to 'socially distance', physically it is easy for me to be on my own, isolated or lonely. Yet in this period of isolation I am feeling more connected to my family and friends than usual. This crisis is enabling people to strip away the masks of social niceties and busyness which means that interactions can be deeper. It's a waste of a video call to reply 'fine' to the question 'how are you doing?' We can see it as being an opportunity to share a uniquely common experience, to share how it has affected us and our families, to share how we feel about it. In short I am finding that this situation is creating time for us to be honest with ourselves and our loved ones. And our relationships are feeling deeper and more connected as a result. Or is that just me?

In offering some steps to take I think the most helpful thing I can do is share with you the gift of solitude. It is different from isolation and loneliness, in that it provides a uniquely spiritual time to reflect and be honest with myself, so that I can more effectively reconnect with those I love once I have come out of solitude:

'Solitude is the furnace of transformation, without it we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self. Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter, the struggle against the the compulsion of the false self, and the encounter with loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self' (Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart)

This reflection from Henri Nouwen clearly focuses on a Christian perspective where solitude allows him to connect with his God. When we begin to reconnect following isolation caused sometimes by mental illness, or physical illness, periods of time when we need to regroup before engaging again with the society around us, it is important that we establish from whence our hope and meaning come. For me, as I have often said in this blog I find it in my personal faith in God. For others it may be other 'higher powers', but this is a starting point.

When we seek to connect or reconnect in a meaningful way with those around us, I have found another Rule of Living helpful to encourage me to connect honestly, it comes from the Northumbria Community and is encompassed in two words: Vulnerability and Availability.

In the coming together of communities at this time I have witnessed both vulnerability: NHS staff willing to risk their lives on the frontline, neighbours helping the elderly out in their neighbourhoods despite having to go outside their own cocoons. Availability means breaking out of our walls and making ourselves available by being authentic and offering to share our real selves with those with whom we come into contact. When you are facing an mortal enemy, the social fears and anxieties pale beside them. I can only relearn trust if I am willing to be both vulnerable to disappointment, or rejection and if I am willing to break my own sense of reticence to engage with people and make connections as much as a I can.

Ultimately, because I have a shared humanity and 'because I am involved in mankind, any man's death diminishes me'. However, when I recognise our shared humanity and join with others to address sometimes boring, practical issues together, sometimes saving actual lives, then I am most profoundly connected not only with the people around me, but with the wider world and creation of which I am an intrinsic and valuable part.

Saturday, 22 February 2020

Young People's Mental Health: The Clash Between Welfare & Achievement

I have hesitated for some time before putting in writing my thoughts on the subject of Young People's Mental Health within our current education system. I have witnessed the narrowing of what education means, from a distance. I have witnessed increased concern from parents and friends who are teachers and educators about the welfare of the children and young people in their care. I have tried to help young people with the support of their parents to negotiate the emotional minefields of their most significant educational milestones.

Sometimes when discussing young people's mental health, we are satisfied with laying the blame on new technology, social media and other things that are different from our day. However, unless you are involved in trying to provide a balanced creative and social education within the current education system, it is unlikely that you will be aware of the impact of successive diktats from government about focusing on exam results, to the detriment of a truly culturally diverse curriculum. Also the focus on needing to achieve, 'outstanding' according to OFSTED criteria seems to be taking focus away from preparing young people for a rounded and successful life, which enables them to weather the inevitable storms and challenges of life as it is.

Why decide to cover this in a Mental Health blog? Because I have recently had a more sustained glimpse inside for the first time since leaving teaching in the 1990s. I am currently trying to overcome my fears and have been applying for work so that I can make the step away from having to rely on benefits. This has meant I have been attending interviews for jobs which are focused on 'Pastoral', 'Welfare' and other 'caring' roles within schools and colleges. My CV obviously gives me some encouragement that I am being invited for interview. My teaching coupled with my lived experience of mental health, along with the work I've been doing in the community would seem to be a perfect fit.

However, following my interview at a local college, which on paper was all but perfect, I have felt deeply uneasy and, at times upset about the atmosphere and attitudes towards students' welfare. Although the role was designated as 'Pastoral' none of the discussion, observation or interview questions explored the link between mental well-being and 'success'. It upset me primarily because I know that one student from this college took their own life in a very public way last year and I am aware of the emotional issues currently being managed by students within the college.

On paper there is a 'counselling department' but I wondered about how effectively this works as there was no explanation of how this department worked alongside those trusted with the general welfare of the student body. Or even, if there is any wider conversation beyond referral and tick in box. In the end the aim of the Pastoral role was to ensure that students remain within the college and 'successfully' complete their courses.

As myself and the other unsuccessful candidate were sifted halfway through the day, I realised that we were the 'quirky', more experienced, more expensive candidates. We stood out, we were big personalities - too big and too experienced maybe to just deliver a proforma welfare programme of lessons. There did not seem to be any scope to individually tailor delivery of coping and mental well-being skills to the small tutorial groups in addition to the prescribed programme of social and health education.

I now know my main mistake was in focusing on helping young people develop a safe group of people and safe place within college so that they could feel supported emotionally as well as academically. The problem, I wanted to ensure that young people enjoyed their time and were able to manage stresses around exams and the future by providing a forum to share coping skills.

This I find is not the pastoral agenda for school and colleges. It can't be. Exam results and OFSTED reports are integral and essential to funding for all activities within the establishment. There can't be additional resources for the mental health initiatives the government has now loaded onto the already overstretched education system.

There are a large number of these posts being advertised and not every school or college I have attended for interview have had such a narrow emphasis. In fact I have been encouraged by conversations with school leaders who recognise the need for a compassionate and responsive mental health strategy which is willing to consider building up resilience and crisis management skills for all of their students. While educational success is dictated by government and political ideology and narrowly assessed based on exam results, we will continue to face growing issues around young people's battles with anxiety, depression and other related issues such as substance misuse.

Unfortunately, on a wider note the pressure to maintain successful exam results, in some settings seems to resulting in a more chalk and talk form of teaching for A Level. This again, saddens me, as one of the joys of the Socratic Method is to build on students' strengths and natural interests to encourage, a questioning, inquiring, critical frame of mind, which can be the foundation to the independent learning essential to be successful at degree level. I found student areas to be quieter than expected, and classes less discursive and confident in expressing their own opinions. There are few times for reflection it seems to me, within these most formative years.

My conclusion is that there is no room for a teacher like me anymore within education. I believe too much in the individuality of life experience and the fact that each student does not come to us as an empty vessel passively waiting to be filled by the prescribed knowledge which can be measured by exams and tests and reassure those in power who wish to avoid questioning minds.

Where that leaves our need to support young people so that they can be resilient enough to cope with all that life throws at them, I don't know. I do know that educators need expertise from outside as well as resources which can help them feel more confident in speaking to young people about issues around self injury and suicide in particular. It requires investment in pastoral staffing which is separate from the academic staff and curriculum, where young people can have confidence that there is a safe place and safe people with whom they can be open. The school nurse service maybe a model which can offer one pathway, or designated mental Health leads, which I believe is in the pipeline. I would say that given the current pressures on management, such a role does need to be seen as not linked to a student's academic progress.

Small short term projects are a good start. However, I do believe there needs to be a completely different approach to school pastoral structures, particularly in the post 16 world.

These are simply my personal views.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Both....And....Life's Balancing Act

In the wee small hours of the morning, when I have tossed and turned all night, with anxious thoughts, all is darkness. Although the opposite point of view - the rose tinted glasses view that life is a bowl of cherries, seems less problematic, it is no less damaging, if it causes us to be unable to engage with life as it is.

The Dialectical part of DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) recognises that life is not all black or white, darkness or light, it can be both at the same time. For those of us who experience rapidly seesawing emotions acknowledging the reality of competing truths, can be difficult to negotiate, particularly when our emotions are informing our thinking that the 'truth' is either all black or all white. The sweet spot lies between accepting competing realities and fighting against one or other truth to the point of exhaustion.

In DBT, the decision sweet spot is called Wise Mind, a balance between being all rational or all emotion. This helps us to balance our purely rational, impassive, view of life with our instinctive, emotion driven knee jerk reaction to our life experience in making decisions which are ultimately helpful.

I understand Dialectics as the balance beam along which my view of life in all its light and shade can lead to me accepting the ups and downs of my life. It is an essential part of the Radical Acceptance which helps me to accept my past, build on my present and move forward into the future.

Dictionary definition: 'Dialectical thinking refers to the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and to arrive at the most economical and reasonable reconciliation of seemingly contradictory information and postures.'

In applying it to my recovery and use of DBT skills, it is an extension of Wise Mind and moves us from the wilfulness of persisting with long discredited ways of coping with the contradictions of life to an acceptance of life as it is. It helps me to stop being a captive to my instinctive, emotional responses to life, which can be out of kilter with the reality I am experiencing.

Looking back on 2019, following the General Election, just before Christmas which rounded off an awful year, all seemed dark. Then I looked for other perspectives. I am grateful for the blogs of @sarah.styles.bessey who often reflects on the difficult experiences of life. She sums up for me the practical application of thinking dialectically about what we are going through:

'This was the year I learned all over again to reconcile that many things can be true at the same time:

...we miss who we used to be and we love the person we are becoming;...

love and grief;

hope and lament;

there are miracles and there are not;

there are funerals and there are baptisms;

this world is devastatingly broken, filled with weeping and suffering and this world is so freaking beautiful and good you could cry at the sight of a baby’s thigh or catch your breath at the sight of pine trees against a rose coloured sky or turn up the music to sing in the car with the windows down.

All of it: true.'

Life is not all darkness, nor is it all happiness and light. The difference between joy and happiness is that happiness is mostly dependent on what is happening to me. Nobody can be happy all the time.

Joy goes deeper and can exist at the same time as some of the most difficult of times. We can be grieving a major loss, or be struggling with the most difficult of circumstances, but in the midst of those times I can also experience the joy of a good cup of coffee, shared laughter, the warmth of my dog cuddling next to me.

Research shows that feelings last approximately 90 seconds and are fleeting - if we do not constantly fuel them with underlying triggering thoughts. This means that the most negative of emotions is survivable and passing. It also means that there is an opportunity to enjoy moments of positive emotions and allow them the same space to breathe as we give our negative feelings. When your life has been dominated by believing that your darkest moments far outweigh the times that were good, reflect and give space to those moments of light and hope which have sustained you. If we can give the times of light more weight than our negative feelings allow, we will be able to recognise that our lives are both light and shade and our challenge is to keep our focus on balancing these truths about life.