Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Alcoholism: from anger to acceptance

This creative piece I've written got me thinking more about my changing relationship to, and acceptance of, alcoholism.

First I wanted to elaborate to say that I know my moving on and acceptance is made easier by my Dad doing really well. Through the help of a brilliant therapist, he's mostly sober, with rare relapses. So I know my situation is a good one (though it hasn't always been that way), that I'm lucky - and that enables a healthier perspective.

Still, I feel like maybe sharing some of my thoughts around all of this may be helpful. It may also be infuriating if you're in what feels like a hopeless situation - and if that's the case I'm sorry, and I understand. Please read anyhow, I really hope you can take something from this.

See I remember on one of the few times I went to a support group, feeling such frustration at this phrase being read out: "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

I remember thinking, how could you ever accept this? How could this ever be ok? And so desperately wishing that was an option for me, but almost knowing it wasn't.

I held a lot of anger, and a frustration that no matter how understanding or compassionate I was (and truthfully at that time I wasn't - I couldn't be), it wouldn't be enough to end the addiction. The situation felt hopeless, and that was so hard to deal with.

What was also difficult was the idea of control and choice. As much as I tried to understand - the idea that it was him but not him felt unfathomable at times. It felt like there were other ways - if he could just put the bottle back, or call us, but he couldn't. And that was hard.

Even when I got to a point of understanding that drinking was never a choice but a compulsion that was so strong it drove away logic, a relapse would always feel devastating. The anger would resurface - I think in retrospect partly because of fear, of going back to that situation of lies and uncertainty.

What I wrote about here was how our situation would repeat. For a while we were stuck in a cycle of drinking and lying about not drinking, and big tense conversations around that. What also repeated was my reaction - although I'd been there before, I never seemed to learn.

Having some space, literally through living away, but also the space afforded by sobriety as relapses got further and further apart, I was able to understand the situation a little more, and to feel more accepting of it.

Then, this year I got to know Brené Brown's work - through video interviews and her books, and honestly I think she helped. Her research and writing must have seeped in, or maybe a sense of bigger picture perspective amidst other situations too.

One time after a relapse I could tell Dad was struggling with shame. He hadn't wanted to drink, nor to make things harder for anyone, and yet he had - and he felt awful about that. Having expressed some frustration but also a level of acceptance, I then came back and tried to say - please don't let this fester and drag you down, it's happened, it's ok - we can move on.

It felt different. I didn't feel angry, I felt like I was standing in front of my Dad who I love and respect, not just wanting him to get back up again - but actually, maybe for the first time, offering him a hand to do so.

Then, when I read Brené's Daring Greatly recently, she hit the nail on the head of where my thinking had been getting to:

"We live in a world where people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, it's dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Researchers don't find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all - there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behaviour. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive or hurtful behaviours than it is to be the solution."

Ironically, this sent a pang of shame through me. I knew that all the while I'd questioned and blamed, I'd been confusing accountability with accusation. I think I thought that if we didn't react strongly enough, it would all just carry on - the gravity of the situation wouldn't be felt. And maybe that's true. But it still wasn't helping anyone.

Brené's differentiation between guilt and shame is helpful too. Guilt being "I did something bad". Shame being "I'm a bad person". Two very different things.

We shame ourselves and we shame other people (especially when we're feeling it ourselves), and the only way out of that is empathy.

Things got a lot easier when I learned to listen without judgement. I used to be frustrated when things would go quiet, no explanations or apologies, but I was hardly a receptive audience. Now, we have good, healthy conversations - and I am so glad of that.

This animation adapted from the writing of Johann Hari is also really interesting in terms of shifting perspective:

The line "we put people in a situation that makes them feel worse and then hate them for not recovering" I found really powerful. In the context of the video, this is talking about prison, but I think this applies to reactions to the addictive behaviour generally and relapses too.

If you essentially tell an addict off, it won't deter them - it will fuel their shame. It is hard, people should know when they've caused hurt, but I think there's a way to do it - or maybe we don't do it at all (hard when you're feeling the impact of it all, but maybe that's why it's important).

I'm still trying to navigate all this, but I do know (with an awareness that this is hard) that it's important that we try to understand, and that we feel better when we do.

Read the poem I wrote that inspired this article here. I also wrote this piece on myths and truths around alcoholism last year.

Click here for some really helpful information on alcoholism and alcohol abuse including signs and symptoms, effects of alcoholism, getting help, and advice for when a loved one has a drinking problem. Addaction also have brilliant services for those affected by addiction.


we used to go round in circles
in seething silences we awaited answers that would never soothe nor appease
but would let the hurt linger

or most often still - no answer at all

A sigh
and his head in his hands
world weary
and wary of tired excuses
and feeling under attack
all he knew was nothing at all

no reason or logic
no answers to whys and

could you have not just put the bottle back

he said it was not as simple as that

it took time to learn
to learn that it's him but it's not
that these circles don't help
that the whys and the weary eyes won't ever make it stop

so despite myself i said
it's ok
I'm still proud of you
And i was

there was sadness still that we'd be back here once more
but if his drinking was fuelled by shame
then something had to change

cause god knows he's trying

so he had to see
he could be more than this
that he is more than this

he's my dad
And he's a good man
And I'm proud

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Starting a new blog on social media

So this is just a quick one to flag up that I've started a new blog! Over on socialmediafyi I'll be posting every Sunday with links to news on updates on the various platforms, alongside examples of organisations that are doing it really well.

I was kind of nervous to start this - while social media marketing is something I care a lot about and have invested time and effort in, I'm not an expert. But it'll be something I know I'll enjoy doing and hopefully helpful for people like myself who work with social media, but not as their whole job - so don't necessarily have time to research updates within the working day.

So if you know someone who works in social media and you think they'd be interested, please do share.

Meanwhile I'll still be posting here - with articles about various things, but also potentially trying to share more creative work. That was something I really enjoyed about the DIYCreativeClub Challenge in September.

The beauty of blogging can be that things don't have to be polished or perfect (does anything?) - so I'm hoping this will be a safe place to experiment. That said, feedback is welcome (especially if you like what I'm doing - we all need a bit of validation! ha. But seriously.)

But yes, thank you, and take care x

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Bryony Kimmings & Tim Grayburns' Fake It Til You Make It

Photo: Richard Davenport

Expectations can be dangerous. When everyone tells you something is wonderful and five stars and will hit you in the gut, that's a lot to live up to. I feel like when someone says I'll definitely cry, that means I definitely won't.

So no, Fake It 'Til You Make It was not what I was expecting. But I absolutely loved it, and yes - it lived up to the hype.

I thought, because I knew the subject matter would resonate and because of what I'd heard, that it would hit me hard and I'd be a mess at the end, but I wasn't. I felt emotion, but a different kind. A sort of overwhelming pride, always an odd word when you don't know the person, but definitely pride - for how Tim had worked with Bryony to put together this show, and to stand at the end and talk to us about men and depression and stigma. I felt moved but more so in a joyous way - because we are most definitely making positive steps away from shame and into understanding.

If you haven't heard about the show: Bryony and Tim are a real life couple. They're in love, and are about to have a baby. And Tim suffers with depression and anxiety.

He kept it secret for the longest time, feeling too ashamed to even Google his symptoms, and it was only when Bryony discovered the Citalopram in his bag that he could begin to have an honest conversation about his feelings.

What I loved about this show, was the honesty involved, and the relationship we got to get a glimpse into. One-person autobiographical shows are common, but this dynamic is different - they're letting us into their intimate, personal and, crucially, shared painful experience, as well as the eccentricities and joy of their relationship.

And it was funny! I've said it before but I love the quote from Peter Ustinov - "comedy is simply a funny way of being serious." Serious subject matters do not mean we shouldn't be laughing - if anything, the opposite. It helps.

Fake It flits between storytelling, surreal visual antics that almost parody contemporary performance, in an enjoyable knowing way, and recordings of a real life conversation the couple had in their flat about their experiences with Tim's illness. This is where the emotion came from for me, hearing Tim talk about what he'd imagined doing to himself, and Bryony desperately wondering "what would I do if I found you there" felt deeply difficult to listen to.

Visuals are how I remember my depression and so the medium of this kind of performance feels absolutely perfect. It's such an odd experience to look back on - this scary blur of time, with unsettling images mixed in: genuinely bizarre symptoms and sleep paralysis and feeling lost, and spaces feeling surreal. They captured this so well - throughout, but particularly in the scene where Tim is anxious and, quite literally, lost. It genuinely made me nervous to watch.

Tim wears a variety of head-based paraphernalia (a cloud, dark sunglasses, a nag's head) to avoid ever having to make eye contact with the audience - but it's also the perfect image. Feeling separate and detached and wanting to hide but feeling ever so noticeable, even when you don't want to be.

The word brave around sharing mental health issues bugs me sometimes - I suppose it's the idea that sharing is inherently brave, rather than a normal conversation. It makes me nervous when I've forgot to be, or chosen not to be. We don't always want to be brave.

But here, brave is the perfect word. To talk about suicide and still feeling afraid, after being silent for so long: that's most definitely brave. And also to be an advertising executive, with no previous performance experience, dancing on stage in your pants: that's brave!

This show is important, really important, but equally don't be put off by that word - it's an awful lot of fun, and a lovely, joyous thing to watch.

Fake It 'Til You Make It goes on tour in the spring.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Why everyone should read Brené Brown's Rising Strong

"When we are brave enough, often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability."

A few years ago now I fell in love with Brené Brown's TED talks on vulnerability, shame and empathy. She was a brilliant speaker and made so much sense. Why I then didn't investigate her work further I have no idea.

Because I've just finished reading her latest book Rising Strong and I'm kind of overwhelmed, in the best way possible.

I went through a stage of reading self-help books (this feels more research and story based, but yes most likely it may help you - and will appeal if you're into all that, but also if not) and Susan Jeffers' Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway was such a game changer for me. It genuinely helped me go from a place of low self-esteem and anxiety, to being able to cope with what life would throw at me.

Then I read some similar books that all explained the same things in the same way.

And then, many years later - this.

Again: game changer.

I think I underlined something on every page because it all just made so much sense - either in a completely new way, or something clicking into place. But I'm already finding myself clocking difficult feelings, and getting curious, and wanting to challenge people when I'm in a good place, in a healthy way.

I could so easily share so much of the book here but that would be a bit of a copyright issue and also - just go read the book. I'm sure I'll end up getting copies for most people I know. It just feels really reassuring to make sense of things and to have a way through, and to be braver because of that.

It's genuinely practical, and the way Brené writes is more accessible than anything I've read of this kind: she's funny, and she's honest, and she's just real. She tells a good story and she doesn't have this stuff down - she's working on it. And that's reassuring too.

I'm now going to work through Brené's other books - Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection. And then I'll probably read Rising Strong again BECAUSE IT'S THAT BLOODY GOOD.

I also feel so much gratitude for this and Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic (thoughts here) coming out at the same time, giving me a massive inspiration and reassurance boost right when I needed it. Ladies: you're wonderful - thank you.

If you don't think you'll have time to read this (please make time it's wonderful) - or even if you do - this interview explores a lot of the key ideas and is a really nice watch:

Sunday, 18 October 2015

There's no poetry in depression

There's no poetry in depression
No rhythms or rhymes in this place that's just
Not quite linear - nothing makes sense
but not poetic, no

There's repetitions
I learn what time the street lights switch off when I can't sleep
Not time by number but time by, I think that light's about to -
And there it goes
And the news on the radio every hour on the hour
how has an hour passed since the last hour
I just don't know

And repetition in a day spent the same way, only getting up to eat, not quite in sleep but just
For time to pass.
Then quickly.

We think there's poetry in it
In looking into the darkness
We like to say that it's being lost
and not waving but drowning

and I suppose there's poetry in everything
But this is mostly grey and always grim

Yes there's light, and there's images
But that's moreso the memories than the melancholia itself

I guess what I'm saying is it's a place dark and deep
but a place you'd never want to be
and a place not conducive to creativity
so no - to say they're linked so clearly doesn't sit well with me

Cling onto your hope and cling onto your art, to move you through
Because this isn't a place for you to stay

There's no poetry in depression

So, have hope, my dear

If this resonated with you at all, firstly - click that last link in the piece (that's the important bit.) Then have a little read of how I got through depression, and what the day to day experience of it was like for me.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

How to help: foodbanks and women's refuges

Many of us want to help more but think we don't have enough money or enough time to go around. I'd like to suggest that isn't true.

I don't mean that in a try harder guys manner, but rather with a genuine, practical look at giving time and resources amidst a busy life. Giving time does not have to mean a regular voluntary position.

Last year I heard about Project Shoebox. The idea was to collect toiletries and beauty items to make up shoeboxes for women in refuges - acting as a much needed start-up set for those who are in this situation, many of whom arrive with only the clothes on their back. The campaign was built around the lead-up to Christmas.

You could either drop off or send items to a collection point, or start a collection for your own local women's refuges.

I decided to give the latter a go. I knew it might be a bit of hard work and imagined this would begin by asking my colleagues, and then extend to engaging with other local businesses, picking up from them etc.

It was so much simpler than I imagined. I sent an all-staff email to my theatre. The next day items started appearing on my desk and increasingly built and built. At the two week deadline I'd given myself we had enough items to give a fully packed box to women in not one but two local refuges, a lot of extras and children's books people had also helpfully donated.

I could have cried with happiness. I think I might have done at one point!

And to think that was just from my workplace, without any chasing.

It did take a bit of organising - working out towards the end what we needed more of and what we definitely didn't, and collecting shoeboxes from shoe shops.

Then me and a friend spent a long evening decorating the boxes and filling each one equally. That was probably the most hard work that went into it, but was also so much fun and a really nice way to spend an evening.

The boxes ended up not just being practical start-up kits but also luxurious gifts that anyone would love to receive.

Here's not even all of the items before boxing up:

And here's our boxes at the end of packing:

So, a lesson learned: people are so willing to help, they just need to be asked, and for it to be an easy process. Don't feel shy about being the person to start that process.

My colleagues weren't asked to take items to somewhere else in town, but just my desk. They felt good about it and it was lovely to see everyone really come together.

If you fancy giving this a go, you can find existing drop off points here or there's some practical tips for starting your own collection at the end of this post.

There's also now an Indiegogo raising funds to help with distribution, if you'd prefer to donate money.

This year, I'd like to do the same again, but I'm also thinking about food banks.

Most towns will have one and they always need donations. So many (too many) people need these services to survive in desperate circumstances. A third of those helped by food banks are children.

So, if you can spare anything that they need, please do seek out your nearest foodbank and help.

Better still, start a group collection. Send the list of items to your colleagues, neighbours, or fellow parents at school, and ask if they'd be happy to donate items - whether from their cupboard at home or via their next food shop.

If you're a public facing organisation such as a theatre, school or cafe, especially somewhere people will be coming anyway, then look into if you can accept donations.

A word of warning again, you will most likely receive way more than you expect. If you don't drive, enlist the help of someone who does. If the foodbank is close enough, one of these trolly bags may be helpful, or just use a suitcase.

As your collection goes along, you can gage if you need to do regular drop-offs to avoid storage being an issue. If your foodbank is close then they'd most likely appreciate this anyway.

If you don't think you'll have enough time for drop offs and to keep an eye on the collection, ask if anyone fancies getting involved. There will most likely be someone that is more than happy to help.

And if you don't have the time or energy for starting a group collection, that's absolutely ok too. You can donate to an existing one - there's often collection points in supermarkets. (or not at all! Your life.)

Ideally, these things would be something we'd do year round, but this is a good starting point. So in the lead-up to Christmas if you can take this opportunity to get people together and do something that will help so many then that really is a wonderful thing.

And if you can keep it going, even better.

Good luck!

A few practical tips for anyone wanting to give Project Shoebox a go:
  • Ask for toiletries and beauty items such as: toothbrush. toothpaste, face wash, wipes. deodorant, shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser, make-up, hand cream, soap, razor, dry shampoo, chap stick, nail files etc
  • These are often things you can find at home never used, but you can also suggest exchanging Boots or Nectar points, or making use of a multi-buy when doing their own shopping. Hotel, flight and magazine freebies are also all welcome!
  • When getting in touch with the contact for your local refuge (look online) clearly explain what you're doing first, and then ask for guidance on how many boxes to make up. For good reasons there is a lot of confidentiality in place, but they will be so glad of the help. You can also ask if they have any children in residence, and then suggest bringing old books in to those you know with children.
  • This project can be as big or small as you can do: if you can just gather a few items, that still helps. Don't see it as all or nothing.
  • Have somewhere to store items and shoeboxes. Ideally a spare room or under your bed or something while you collect. For big collections, apparently Tesco have community rooms can use for free - worth looking into.
  • Towards the end of your collection, do a quick tally of what you have. You'll probably end up with more than enough body moisturiser (usually unused gifts), and not enough toothbrushes. You can then email out giving guidance on this to those still wanting to donate.
  • Leading on from this, places like Poundland and Primark do multi-packs of toothbrushes and other cheap items.
  • You could also ask at local beauty counters for any perfume or beauty samples they are willing and able to give, explaining the reason why.
  • A practical one on wrapping the boxes - use glue rather than tape. It's quicker and works better. Roll a large rectangle of wrapping paper, and place your box in the middle with enough paper around it to cover the sides of box. Cut the rectangle out, and then cut a diagonal line from each corner of the paper, ending just before corner of each box. Glue underneath the main part of box, and place on paper, then glue sides. It'll get faster as you go.
For more tips and advice go to the Project Shoebox Facebook. Any questions on what I did personally give me a shout @amyjanesmith