A short message from my sponsee

Samaritans have been nominated to be the official charity partner for The Football League in 2011.  This opportunity is worth a fantastic £500,000 for Samaritans! 

It is a public vote, so anyone can vote, and it’s quick and easy – please vote for Samaritans now, and encourage everyone you know to vote by following the link below.

Individuals are allowed to vote more than once, – after voting just click the refresh button on your computer.


You may ask ‘why the Samaritans?’:

1) We are the only support available in the UK 24/7, 365 days a year for those going through crisis, whether due to redundancy, debt, bereavement or any other source of distress.

2) The current economic situation means thousands more people are feeling the stress of unemployment, money worries and increased pressure.  Support now is more important than ever.

3) Samaritans helps people in your local community, people from your town, village or city. With 201 branches nationwide, a vote for Samaritans means the money you raise will help those local to you who are desperate for support.

4) A partnership with the Football League helps forge links locally with all Samaritans branches

5) Samaritans is run by 18,500 volunteers and Samaritans turnover is relatively small.  Less than 2% of our income is government funded so we need your support today.

The voting closes on 8th December.

Your vote could help Samaritans win £500,000 and deliver our life saving messages to people at risk across the UK.  

Thank you

PS Arsenal isn’t in the league, it’s in the Premiership so there’s nothing in this for the boys, in case you were wondering.

Another artistic interlude

This time Walking In My Mind at The Hayward Gallery.

I was so totally blown away by Keith Tyson‘s work, which is near the beginning, that the rest of the installations that make up the exhibition didn’t really stand much of a chance. But this is hardly surprising given where he’s coming from:

Keith Tyson’s work can be characterised as an artistic exploration of some of the basic mysteries of human experience. His artistic motivations lie in an interest in generative systems, and an embrace of the complexity and interconnectedness of existence. Philosophical problems such as the nature of causality, the roles of probability and design in human experience, and the limits and possibilities of human knowledge, animate much of his work. His practice is also defined by a direct engagement with scientific and technological ideas.

His installation consists of two walls of selected Studio Wall Drawings and one wall of an assemblage called “Locked Out Of Eden – Viewing The Children Playing In The Garden From The Safety Of My Cerebral Fortress”. Tyson says the Studio Wall Drawings exist “in a space somewhere between a map, a poem, a diary and a painting.” Many address and describe painful mental states and I was frequently reminded of Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings (see previous post). However it has to be said this perceived similarity could also be due to the fact that they’re the only two art events I’ve been to for quite some time.

I wish I had known before I went that it is possible to download the curator’s audio tour from the internet to an MP3 player. What a great idea, particularly if it’s an interesting and well-produced example of the genre which would augment rather than distract from the experience. I haven’t listened so can’t give an opinion. I’m so out of everything I can’t tell whether this is an exciting innovation on the part of the Hayward or merely standard practice in these internet-augmented days.

I also wish I was going to be in London for the associated event Brain Making:

Make a model of a brain with scientist Dr Lizzie Burns, who in the process attempts to explain the mysteries of the creative mind. She discussed the work in the exhibition from a neurogical perspective and shows how the artist’s dreams, hallucinations and memories influence their work.

I shall, instead, be mashing up the words “walking”, “brain”, “mind” and “making” in a different way on a mindfulness meditation retreat.

However I can’t resist mentioning that, having finally had the long-awaited MRI scan, I now have my very own brain to play with. It arrived as a couple of files requiring a specialised piece of medical image viewing software to open. I haven’t had much time to play with it yet, but it’s been awesome so far being able to go through my own head like a packet of honey roast ham (slice by slice).

storm trooper

There’s a bit of a startled Star Wars Storm Trooper look going on here, I reckon.

Or how about the Yubaba/Zeniba clone/crone/fairygodmother? (That link to a picture of Yubaba is taken from a fascinating blog post – the trouble with coraline (or: fear of witches) from a blog which after this serendipitous discovery I am going to bookmark.)


Oh yes. There’s much more where those came from. And just wait til I start drawing on them.

Meanwhile I’m mostly offline again until September.

Moved to moblog

For anyone interested in art & or mental ill health or the incredible amazing collision of the two I can’t recommend highly enough the current exhibition at the Wellcome Collection called Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings: Mental illness and me, 1997-2008.

So many incredible images, issues, hyoooj STUFF going on here. Superb. Would love to write more but keyboard doesn’t permit loquacity. (Is that a word? If not it should be.)

PS The picture is her representation of mindfulness meditation. Hope it’s legible at whatever size this (hugely cunning and clever) widget chooses to publish it.

CS Lewis

I read and loved the Narnia books despite being irritated by the theology but have never read anything else. I think I should. (If I ever recover the ability to read books, of course.)

Yesterday there was this:

Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them—never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?

quoted here, in a thought-provoking article recommended by a friend, which reminded me of this post by another.

Today there is this:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

from the ever-flowing river of whiskey.

Both of those speak volumes to me at the moment.

Blogging is good for you

I bet this is all over everywhere, given the subject matter, but I’ve only seen it on Mind Hacks.

Self-medication may be the reason the blogosphere has taken off. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery. A study in the February issue of the Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged in expressive writing just before treatment felt markedly better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not…

Some hospitals have started hosting patient-authored blogs on their Web sites as clinicians begin to recognize the therapeutic value. Unlike a bedside journal, blogging offers the added benefit of receptive readers in similar situations, Morgan explains: “Individuals are connecting to one another and witnessing each other’s expressions—the basis for forming a community.

As a self-medicating blogger I say *yay* for scientists catching up.

However as a pathological producer and consumer of web2.0 (or whatever it’s called at the moment) I say *grrrrrr* for epic del.icio.us auto-link-to-blog fail.

This is the sort of story I’d delish in the knowledge that it’d appear on the blog. Only that knowledge, already challenged by a previous unexplained outage of the automated system, is now cowering in the corner reduced to hope more than expectation.

Luckily I know the ideal way to deal with my pain and frustration at this terrible situation. I write about it.


Maizy has accepted the inescapable reality of her haircut…

wet iris, cold dog

…although due to the unfortunate climatic conditions she’s still shivering a lot.

Today I went on a wonderful day meditation retreatTraining the mind, freeing the heart: Waking up to each moment. No shivering, much contemplation of acceptance.

Yesterday, after a rather grueling assessment process, I was accepted as a listening volunteer for the Samaritans. All volunteers sign a confidentiality agreement, for obvious reasons. This means that, difficult though it is to believe, I shall have nothing more to say on the subject other than that I am extremely happy.

Medication -> mediation -> meditation

Anyone who visits regularly will know that I’m interested in the therapeutic benefits of meditation and, serendipitously, Vaughan at Mind Hacks recently posted an overview of a roundup detailing cognitive science studies on meditation. There’s a growing body of clinical evidence to add to my own entirely subjective experience that meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, can be extremely helpful in continuing efforts to remain, for want of a better term, “depression-free”.

Jean has already written about attending a course with a view to embarking on the path of teaching meditation techniques to others. We were originally intending to attend the same course together with the same goal in mind, but childcare considerations meant I have ended up on a different course. And here I come upon the first of many questions which have arisen (and will no doubt continue to arise).

I’m currently attending a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course.

MBCT is based on the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) eight week program, developed by Jon Kabat Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Research shows that MBSR is enormously empowering for patients with chronic pain, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and gastrointestinal disorders, as well as for psychological problems such as anxiety and panic.

Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy grew from this work. Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale adapted the MBSR program so it could be used especially for people who had suffered repeated bouts of depression in their lives.

The course Jean is attending is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the name given to the original eight-week programme developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. What then is the difference between her MBSR course and my MBCT? As far as we’ve managed to discover by comparing notes after each of our sessions, almost nothing.

This is not entirely surprising. The basic MBSR programme is being used to treat a variety of different health problems.

However I have a few reservations about my experience of this particular MBCT course so far.

The first is my sense, entirely unverified (although I think I should ask her) that the teacher herself has never experienced severe depression. Her descriptions of the thought processes of the depressed mind bear almost no relationship to my own experience of depression. She originally took an MBSR course to help tackle chronic pain.

The second is that although everything I’ve read about MBCT (including the flyer for the course I’m attending) says it is not suitable for people who are currently depressed one of the participants in our group is obviously currently depressed, on medication, broke down during one of the sessions, failed to attend the following week, returned the next week and announced that she’d been feeling so terrible that she’d had to increase her medication. And yet she was not advised that the course might well not be suitable for her and has not, as far as I’m aware, been told that it might be better for her to stop.

The third is that the course information does not say where (or indeed if) the trainer gained a qualification to teach MBCT. Or MBSR.

Given that depression is a life-threatening disorder I think it’s important that preventive action – which is what MBCT is good at – is very clearly kept separate from active treatment of the illness itself.

It concerns me that people who are not qualified to treat depression may be exacerbating an already difficult situation:

When meditation can make depression worse

Although meditation can be very helpful in relieving depression or in preventing depression from arising, the act of focussing inwards can actually heighten feelings of despair. I would suggest not trying to meditate when you are extremely depressed, and especially not at times that you are having any thoughts of self-harm.

As one experienced meditator said, “Meditation while clinically depressed can result in intensification of feelings of despondency, hopelessness, and negativity generally. The metta practice (where the meditation is focussed on the development of loving kindness towards yourself, and others) is theoretically a good thing, but in practice it can be a nightmare if all you feel is self-hatred!”

Regulation and accreditation of training and practitioners would seem to be very important.

This leads on to an important conviction I have come to. It is that, as another western meditation maestro Jack Kornfield put it, meditation is not psychotherapy.

Meditation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives. Our sorrows are hard to touch. Many people resist the personal and psychological roots of their suffering; there is so much pain in truly experiencing our bodies, our personal histories, our limitations. It can even be harder than facing the universal suffering that surfaces in sitting.

It is my opinion, unverifiable of course, that I would be unable to meditate at all never mind gain any benefit from it if I had not tackled a large number of underlying issues, which I feel either caused or significantly worsened my depression, through psychotherapy. And I would probably (possibly?) have been unable to undertake the therapy without medication.

I do not wish to undervalue my experience of meditation. It is, in a very real sense, what keeps me going. Medication and psychotherapy are like the plaster cast that enables a broken bone to heal. But that is worthless if immediately you fall over and break the limb again. Meditation allows me to keep my balance. Meditation is like a dog. It is for life, not just for Christmas.

I would like to share this knowledge, these techniques. The way in which this might happen is still not clear to me. One thing, however, is. I still have a very, very great deal to learn.

The Samaritans

I went to an introductory evening at the Samaritans last night in what I hope is the beginning of the process of becoming a volunteer, encouraged by a friend who already gives time to them.

The more I find out about this organisation the more I realise what an extraordinary range of vital services it offers, not just for those experiencing emotional distress but also as a resource for those concerned about someone they know in such a situation as well as its training, campaigning and de-stigmatising roles.

I was anxious before I left. Worried, I think, about my ability to be with others’ emotional pain. Am I strong enough? Feeling defensive. How much information about myself and my experiences might I be required to reveal? Of course the answer to that is just as much as I am comfortable with. And the event was fascinating. Seven people of various ages and backgrounds with widely differing reasons for wanting to give time. Two volunteers to guide us through an informative video and discussion afterwards.

It’s a path I want very much to pursue. The aim of enabling an entirely non-judgemental space – through active listening – in which it may be possible for individuals to be empowered to discover the resources to take control of their lives is very exciting.

The next step is a three hour (gulp!) individual assessment to judge suitability for training. The volunteer training course, which lasts a number of weeks, is apparently very resource intensive (the Samaritans is a charity, of course) and it’s important to screen candidates carefully. It’s quite common for volunteers to have a background of having experienced mental distress or suicidal feelings so if I’m not ready for it yet I’m sure that will become clear at the assessment session.

The words

They are words like “death” and “worth” and “alone” but they need other words to join them like the stalks do a daisy chain and those haven’t arrived yet.

So all I can do is ask whether you knew that the dandelion is a member of the daisy family. I didn’t, until I checked how to spell it. How wonderful.