A pirate, a question, and feet

Apart from sky-diving, I am usually pretty open to trying new things.

(I have friends who adore sky-diving but I can’t understand it at a fundamental level – it’s scary enough to get on a plane in the first place, I am not jumping out of one.)

So, earlier this week, on a recommendation from a friend, I started some biodynamic craniosacral therapy sessions. Essentially, the recommendation was: “this guy holds your feet and it’s really intense but you feel amazing afterwards”.

How could I not try that?

If you want to know what this therapy is, have a look here:


My paraphrase would probably get a bit too tongue-twisted if I tried.

So I went there for the first time this week and told my usual story of anxiety (hello researcher), and digestion issues (hello anxiety, hello researcher). It’s not an uncommon story, certainly among my peers. I have written more food diaries than actual life-story diaries; take all sorts of supplements; have given up loads of different ‘trigger’ foods at different times to see if that made a difference.

For those of you who’ve done this food journey, you’ll know how boring it can get – trying to replace and reintroduce; wondering why you feel awful after a meal that only included ‘safe’ food; searching for ingredients you can barely pronounce, let alone spell.

I can bake a dairy- and gluten-free brownie with the best of them now, but it’s been a journey.

So, why not try the foot-holding guy?

And, I totally understand why I was given the explanation above. I can’t explain it much more than that – although, he does more than hold your feet. It’s just that I’m not concentrating on that; I focus on my breathing with a visualisation and lose myself in that.

After the first session, I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. My throat had felt constricted – I’d been holding my breath for too long so was given the breathing visualisation to calm it down. I felt hot, like I had a temperature. Walking home was a slow progress – I felt fragile and entirely spent. I got home, had a shower, and was in bed by 7:15pm. I slept almost straight through until my alarm rang the next morning, and I felt better. Lighter.

He’d made another appointment for Friday. I was afraid this was because I was completely wonky (see: anxiety).

But last night….

Last night, was completely different. There was a drumming music on when I arrived and my heart raced to its beat. Usually a racing heart is an anxiety thing, but not this time. It didn’t feel the same way. My throat felt different but not constricted, and my whole body tingled just under my skin, like a current was racing through it. I felt like a friendlier, less scary Frankenstein monster. Life via electricity.

And I felt amazing afterwards; my body moved more easily. I felt – if not peaceful, at ease with things.

He told me to take care of my throat: my voice would begin to come back this week.

And I got home and sang while I made dinner – much to the sadness of my small cat who went and hid in the bathroom, paws over her ears. I talked with a friend – one of those fantastic conversations that swing around with ideas, and highlight just how much the universe really can have a big stick to get you to realise things.

I realised just how much anxiety can exist in holding your breath; how much you hold your breath when you’re anxious. And how much, at least for me, those two things are very much chicken-or-egg. I know when I became anxious; I can’t remember when I started holding my breath but, in beginning to unleash it now, I know I’ve been doing it for far too long.

And this now opens my eyes far wider to what can be, and what could be. What exists in my life that makes me swallow my breath, and what exists that brings out the music.

And it’s the music that makes everything brighter, even on a cloudy day, reminds me the sun always comes out. It’s not that this is a magic cure, or that I’m seeking one. Rather, it gives me a new way of seeing things, and a new peace in which to see them. And that is something quite precious.

Connected to this – the universe and her big stick and all – is Amanda Palmer’s new book ‘The Art of Asking’ which has been inspiring me this past week or so as well. That there is bravery not only in asking, but bravery in being OK with the answer as well. Even if the answer is not 42, even if the answer feels wonky, it’s always better to ask, rather than silence the question, rather than hold your breath.

So, I am asking things of people now. Not necessarily asking them for things, but asking how they feel, and what they want – and whether they want to write with me. And sometimes the answers have been disappointing. But, other times, the answers have just been interesting and wonderful and made me feel connected to the people I love and adore in my life.

Sometimes, the answer has been yes as well. Because yes always appears eventually, and always when the time is right.

So, right at this very moment, I am thinking of a pirate called Tadhg, and all the adventures he could have with a kitten on his shoulder and flowers in his hands….

When the answer isn’t always 42*

A few weeks ago, my Fitbit broke.

This caused a few minutes of anxiety. I was so used to knowing that I would usually walk around 20,000 steps today (I walk everywhere) and, in doing that, there was a sense of reassurance. That this amount of steps would keep me well; whereas any fewer would obviously let the wolves through the door.

After these few minutes though, I remembered that I would still be doing however many steps without a Fitbit. All it did was record; it didn’t determine or judge. There were no wolves, not really, that weren’t simply products of my self-judgment. A Fitbit alone wasn’t going to keep me well.

And anyway, two days later I got a tattoo on the wrist where my Fitbit would have usually sat. I would have had to take it off anyway. In the end it really didn’t matter.

But I got to thinking about the reassurance of quantification again a few days ago when I was unexpectedly asked to give a lecture on suicide prevention – what we know, what we don’t, and studies I’ve worked on that have given some answers which have led to more questions. I was asked questions during and after the presentation and most of my answers were ‘It depends on….’, ‘It depends but…’ Simply because we don’t know enough to give many definite answers. But more than that – simply because something so very human means that its not easily definable or quantifiable – or the same depending on time or space or place or person.

So much depends on the particular person at a specific time within circumstances that may never necessarily be repeated for anyone else.

But this wasn’t enough for some of the students; it never is for some. They wanted sureties and tick boxes and linear ideals where A would always lead to B but not straight to G. When I couldn’t provide this, some of them became a little frustrated. How could I be an expert if all I knew was ‘It depends…’

Friends in similar sensitive, human fields have had this same experience.

But being human doesn’t always equal tick boxes, or either/ors, or yes/no.

Being human can equal open-ended questions and both and maybes.

Being human can mean that there are few certainties, no answers that will always be right, no superheroes fully assured at the very last moment.

Sometimes we will be uncertain, sometimes we will be wrong, and sometimes we will fall and not be caught.

Sometimes our hearts will be broken and sometimes we will break hearts. And we won’t always be able to predict either, even if it’s of ourselves.

Sometimes the answer will be 42.

But sometimes – because we are all so beautifully, so magically, so brokenly human -we will want the answer to be 42 and it won’t be at all, no matter how much we play with the maths.

Sometimes there won’t be any answer and we could easily spend lifetimes chasing something that simply doesn’t exist. Or deciding that the answer is 42 regardless and wondering why nothing seems to work around it and all our fears and flaws don’t magically resolve.

Except that knowing the answer is 42 can make life seem simpler. There is a calm in knowing that 6×7 will always equal the same number. There are questions that have right answers and definite answers. Unchangeable answers – as unchangeable as anything can be. And these are brilliant because we can move onwards and upwards from them. We can build bridges from them. We can fly planes. We can see stars and find dinosaurs.

These are all entirely inspiring things.

But there will always be things that can’t be quantified. Can’t be numbered.

The feelings that get right to the core of being human – that can make a heart beat or make it stop. And it’s our very humanity that makes everything so complicated because how do we see inside our very selves?

How can you measure love? Or make a numerical comparison of that moment when you look at someone and realise you don’t love them anymore?

How can you measure anger between a fleeting feeling to something that causes irreparable damage?

How can you quantify how much you miss someone who’s gone?

How can you value how much a heart can break?

How many times can it heal over and over?

How sometimes it won’t?

None of these will ever add to 42. None will ever have a definite answer, a consistent one, one that will be the same over time and space and person.

No one thing that will always make a heart stop hurting, or someone return, or whatever it is that we’re searching for to make us feel whole.

And it’s this uncertainty that can cause discomfort. It’s this discomfort that makes it seem easier to search for bones and name the planets rather than sit in the rubble. But it’s this ability to sit in the discomfort – to be peaceful with it in some ways – that’s important. Here it may not be that answering questions is the ultimate goal but rather creating a space that allows for the discomfort and the uncertainty and the multitude of greys in-between.

Maybe we need to truly trust that there are more than 50 shades of grey and not all of them are fucked up by any means. That we can make meaning out of certainty without having all the answers. That we can give kindness, spread compassion, so good work, based on depends and maybes and sometimes.

That humanity is allowed and accepted in all its 42s and heart beats and heart breaks. That we don’t search for answers where there may not be any. That we trust the wolves won’t only not come to our door but trust that they were never there to begin with.

But that’s harder to teach. Harder to put on a band around our wrist. This peacefulness sits inside us, waiting to be recognised and nurtured, if we could only trust ourselves to believe in it.

*Apologies and credit to Douglas Adams – if only the mice were right.

Coffee and the spark of ideas

It’s been a long time between blog posts. The last one felt raw so I stepped back a while to work through the memories and thoughts that came back along with the words. I fell into work a bit as different deadlines loomed. All my words were caught up in those papers and reviews and presentations – referenced and careful and, with one presentation, playing with new ideas just to see how they worked. And the buzz when they actually worked well was incredible – I am so deeply an academic nerd. During this, I’d start to write something other than work when an idea sparked tangentially but never quite found the energy to last the whole thought.

It’s easy to forget sometimes how exhausting writing can be. Brilliant, no question, but it empties me sometimes.

So, as I’ve regained my energy, I’ve spent time in the sunshine when it’s appeared (or hiding from the snow and the grim, which has been slightly more common) and relished coffee with colleagues at my office – or at conferences where it was more likely dinner – where conversations stretch over ideas and run away with bubbles only to come back as something different or stronger or discarded. None of which are a negative outcome – much easier to work out an idea doesn’t work over coffee (there is always cake to commiserate with) than mid-way through a presentation when the person’s whose theory it is you’re playing with is watching.

(Hypothetically speaking – this only didn’t happen because of all the bubble ideas discarded over coffee).

There is something magical in finding colleagues and friends whose minds work – not necessarily the same as yours because then how would we ever be creative – but in a way that challenges and enquires and allows you to explore and discard with judgment. One of the things I will always love about this job is that I am never bored and I’m so often inspired to play with texts or ideas in new ways because – really, an idea that doesn’t work over coffee or in the draft stage doesn’t hurt anyone. All it means is that the next idea might get through those initial stages, might change as it’s presented to larger groups or people with the lived experience I’m exploring, might be reshaped and remoulded, but will be all the better for it when it finally steps out into the wider world.

Honestly, is there anything coffee can’t do? Or chai, or green tea? Because technically I’ve meant to have given up coffee inspired by That Space InBetween but it’s proving a truly difficult vice to shake.

The thing is though that inspiration can come from anywhere, and when you least expect it. New lines of poetry over text. Memories unearthed from a late-night comment. Skype meetings that happily jump from idea to idea. Someone new to spark ideas with. There’s a safety in all of this – that nothing has to be right immediately (or ever), rather the sparks simply have to be grasped to see whether they go back to the earth or turn into butterflies.

I am absolutely blessed to have colleagues who both like coffee and are equally as happy to play with the embers of an idea to see what spark remains.

Is it the same for you?