Thursday, 28 April 2016

Dear Mindfulness, Week 1

Dear Mindfulness, Week 1,

Yup, that's right. I'm writing to you. I'm actually writing a week late so really, if we're being completely accurate I'm writing to you, Dear Mindfulness, Weeks 1 and 2, but no need to be picky. I'm writing because on Monday I took part in the second session of what is to be an 8 session course in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and I wanted to let you know what I'm thinking so far. I've even decided that this might become a weekly installment, a little update for you as the weeks go by on how I'm finding this whole lifestyle of living mindfully...I can say, so far, it's a struggle.

So, week 1. I walk into what is normally the waiting room of the Psychologist who first referred me for both CBT and this course. A room that is normally an array of comfy chairs and sofas, tables covered in clumsy piles of magazines and a machine thats' sole purpose is to provide hot beverages to those waiting - the best type of machine I find. On this day, however, the seats are very precisely and satisfyingly placed around the edges of the room, cushions still provided but with spares hidden away in the corner. The hot beverage machine: still present.

I arrive a few minutes early having left myself time to change from my stress stitched work clothes into my favourite socially acceptable pyjamas (because what other outfit would you show up in to a mindfulness group and when told to dress in comfortable clothing...). Apparently, not that. Apparently, the other 6 or 7 members of the group felt their city suits and snazzy stilettos were definitely the most occasion appropriate clothing to attempt to reach that feeling of complete and utter zen....each to their own I suppose. I couldn't feel like a complete mumpty though as I took note of the incredibly brightly coloured rainbow socks moving around the room, setting out piles of paper, a white board, saying hello. The man with the plan. The zen master....Or Hagen, as he is known by those he teaches.

Barefoot in nature, paying attention to my toes
So down sits the colourful sock man and down sits the rest of our group. I take a seat on a comfy armchair and start to remove my shoes...everyone else just sits, shoes still on feet. I discretely reverse my actions and wait for things to begin. We had an introduction, one about the class and one to allow our group to get to know each other. We turned to a partner and found out their purpose. No, not in life or anything big and philosophical like that. Just for why they were there, sitting where they were before a man with rainbow socks. I spoke to a lovely lady. A lawyer, an all too familiar career path that I've grown up watching. She explained that with a job like that, in the big city, long hours, high stress, clients who are completely wonderful and in no way annoying...she's suffered a lot of anxiety and felt mindfulness might help. A similar story all round really. Stresses of day to day life. A couple finding themselves being bullied at work, others not in work. Ellie, 20, dropped out of uni at Christmas because I was miserable, now work at Hamleys, volunteer at GOSH and do some childcare work. Anxiety has been one of my closest and most unwanted companions since before the age I could walk. Apparently, this, mindfulness, might help.

Having left this letter rather a long time, I am struggling to recall exactly what went on, except this. We practiced eating mindfully. Yes, you heard me. Eating. Mindfully. Now, if you've come across any of my other letters you'll know that food is my friend. I have an appetite. I love to cook and have normally finished a first helping of everything before my dad has even managed to sit down to Sunday lunch. On this occasion, therefore, I struggled. We were given a raisin (and no, that wasn't the only concerning part, although it became a part of it...I mean really, why use raisins when you could use chocolate buttons)...Anyway...a raisin. Actually, two. We were told to feel the raisin. Hold it between finger and thumb, look at it, bring it up, right close to the eyes and examine this dried piece of fruit. Bring it to our nose. Inhale and see what we can smell. To the ear and what can we hear............yes. On Monday evening last week, I spent approximately 30 seconds listening to a raisin. Put it in our mouth, sit it on our tongue, feel it, notice what's happening in the mouth, bite into it, chew, what's changed?? Swallow....but not too fast! Notice the swallowing......

Then we did it again, uninstructed, with the second one.

Can you see where this is going? Are you imagining this scene in your head. A group of adults sitting in a circle slowly, but mindfully, listening to a raisin.

This wasn't just for fun though. It was important to have something to say. For, having listened to the raisin, smelled the raisin, and finally, oh so mindfully, eaten the raisin, we then had to report back. What did we notice? What happened when we paid attention to the raisin? Well, I shall tell you. People discovered valleys and hills in the raisin, the up and down bumpiness of the surface of this dry fruit. People noticed that when you put it near your ear and rubbed it between your fingers, a raisin makes a sound. I noticed....that I was really hungry and should have eaten lunch. Oh well, maybe next time.

Moving on. To the body scan. Not a machine making funny noises that looks at your inside, but an exercise that encourages you to pay attention to the body. Lying down, heads on pillows, cardigans, hoodies, coats as blankets, we lay, eyes shut, legs straight and palms facing up. We got comfortable and then listened, as Hagen took us, body part by body part, tail to top, through ourselves encouraging us to breathe in and down into our toes and focus all our attention on each specific body part as he got to it. Starting with the left toes, we moved up the left leg, across the hips and pelvis and down the right leg to the right toes, back up, through the tummy, past arms, hands, fingers, to the back and up to the shoulders, to the head, the face and all its features. Each time our attention was drawn away from the body part at hand, to thoughts of food, that annoying customer at work or what you plan to wear for that party that you might go to in 2 months time with no specific dress code but set in a swanky, yet casual restaurant where you know you can't wear tracksuit bottoms but is black tie too much?....then you take note of the thought flitting before you...acknowledge it kindly, don't get mad, and then bring the attention back to....oh dammit! We've reached the shoulders already! We were at the toes last time I focused!

Wrap up in a blanket...lie on the floor...or on a sofa...and zzzzzzz
Once again, we followed this with a discussion. A talk about how we felt and what happened during this experience. People spoke of feeling numbness or tingling in their limbs as they paid attention. Or how lying there, eyes shut led to imaginings of each limb and some horror level description of it morphing into something else beneath the skin. I stayed quiet. That is, until a lady opposite, quite young, blonde, German, and seeming to share my feelings on these exercises, said that, honestly, she just fell asleep. Amen! A few other nods and I joined in. Yup, I fell asleep. Apparently we should try it sitting up next time, not allow that to happen again. Practice at home.

And that takes me nicely onto my next point. Practice at home. Accompanying the session was a booklet. A pocket filled with exercises to practice and make notes about at home in the weeks between sessions. Our tasks for this week? To do the body scan once a day. To pick one activity each day and try and carry that out mindfully: brush our teeth, get dressed, take a shower...but paying attention. To try and eat a meal mindfully. I did some of these. I tried the body scan most days. The days that I could. It was great, wonderful, a fabulous half hour attempt at paying attention to my toes and nose but simply waking up half an hour later having missed the entire body. Even attempting it sitting up didn't help. If I wasn't sleeping, I was just picturing the cup of tea I would be making mindfully afterwards or deciding what I'd make for dinner until suddenly the ankles had become the neck and the gong at the end of the YouTube video recording was playing, a wake up alarm to get me on my feet.

So, onto the mindful tea. To the process of trying to pay absolute attention as I opened the lid of the kettle, turned on the tap, filled the kettle, turned it on, picked up my mug, selected my tea, stood mindfully waiting for the water to boil, filled my mug, stirred the tea, removed the teabag and poured the milk. Watching my reflection in the surface of the tea and the colours change as the tea got stronger and then the semi-skimmed was added. Drank my tea. Feeling it in my mouth, realising it was too hot and then swallowing. Focus gone. Next day: take two. Dammit: I just turned the kettle on on auto-pilot. Oh well, just an excuse for more tea later I guess.

Can you tell I was mindful when I made it?
This week we added mindful breathing and taking note of one good moment in the day, to the list of practice exercises. Being able to take note of something in the day that had happened and produced a smile and write, what was it, how did I feel etc. etc. During the session we practiced this concept by being asked to close our eyes and imagine the following scenario. You're walking down the street and see someone you know, you shout out to them and they don't respond. How do you feel? What do you do? The answers showed exactly the type of person I am. A few said they'd not think anything of it. They'd thing 'obviously they didn't see me' or 'They were probably distracted'. Meanwhile there I am, stating that my response would be more like: 'What did I do wrong? Oh God, they hate me! I just made a fool of myself and they didn't want people to think they knew me? I can't remember what I did to make them mad but I must have done something! Gaaah, now I'm all red and embarrassed...' and so it continues. The point being that we don't take enough time to focus on a situation really and truely. We just leap into automatic and our thoughts run away with us. A problem I know all too well.
And that's it. That has been my experience, so far, of you and your funny pay-attention seeking ways. I know I'm laughing now but secretly (shhh, don't tell) I am kind of hoping my fondness for you shall grow. That I'll eventually understand it as a method and that it will in some well help, but for now, I'm just going with the flow. I'm taking a deep breath, paying attention as much as I can and....turning on the kettle.

Speak soon,

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Dear Social Awkwardness

Dear Social Awkwardness,

My, that's a bit of a mouthful, eh? But you, yes you. The part of me that makes me completely incompetent when it comes to many, many social interactions. The part of me that makes my cheeks flare red, a warning sign to those around me that I'm attempting to operate in the real world and currently failing. The part of me that makes my eyes well up as I stress over maneuvering round the simplest of everyday obstacles. The part of me that has resulted in far too many 'Yeses' when I should have said 'no' than I can count on both hands and feet combined. I'm writing to you to ask you, politely, ever so nicely, to stop.

To stop forcing me to buy a hot chocolate from the cafe I went to because I wanted some cake simply because I couldn't see where they were, and no cakes were on the menu, and the man behind the counter was waiting, and I didn't want to hold things up, and I didn't want to embarrass myself and I could see him standing there, and I'd been pretending to look at the menu for long enough and.........

I mean, it was a good hot chocolate. Not as good as the cake I had walked through the door for though. Cake that was sitting less than a metre from where I'd been staring absentmindedly at beverages I didn't want or need.

I want you to stop causing me to make snap decisions just because I can't make up my mind and then something happens to put pressure on me and I'm too awkward to carry on with my own business. Buying things I don't need, not buying things I do need just because I'm too awkward to ask where they are...the other day I went to the corner shop to grab some milk...milk, that's all I needed but I did 3 laps of the shop floor and couldn't see any. Did I go up to the lady behind the counter and ask? Pffft, Me? Make a logical decision like that? Of course not. I just picked up several other items that I didn't need and then when making conversation with the cashier at the till, dropped into conversation my need for milk so she would direct me to it. She did, and I added it to my 4 other unnecessary items. Well done Ellie. Pat on the back.

I already had that tea and yet still bought more...
I need you to stop so I don't end up going out with someone just because I felt too awkward to say no. Because when faced with a question and a boy standing directly in front of 15 year old me, I didn't know what to say so I just said yes. Even though in my head I was hitting myself. So socially awkward that I ended up, 20 minutes later, coming up with some horribly embarrassing "I think we're better as friends" type statement to retract my answer before it went too far. A story I'll never live down.

You need to stop because when I enter a room full of people talking in groups, I don't know what to do. I want to stop feeling fluttery and flustered as I attempt to casually sidle up to a group of chattering friends and slip into their conversation - something that normally ends with me not even being noticed. A moment where I end up looking even more awkward as I stand just outside their circle of conversation...until the time comes when it's too much and I have to pretend to spot something on the other side of the room and disappear.

It's more than that though. More than face-to-face communication. You affect me over the phone too. When I have to call someone up to make an appointment or cancel something. The other day I ended up cancelling two hairdressers appointments. Why? I'll tell you.

I wanted a haircut and I had a date ahead. I wanted to get it done and when I get it in my head to do something I don't like that to change. Change is not my friend. So I woke up one morning and decided: "I'm going to book a haircut". It was on my to do list. There was no going back. Not the best at making appointments as it is, I was already pretty stressed but I picked up the phone, determined to do it. To be able to tell mum when she woke up that I'd booked something. By myself. No problem.

"Hello, Hairdressers speaking [not the real name but I think you get the drift] how can I help"
", was wondering if I could book mean...cut...and blow-dry please.....*silence*.........................for today"
"For today, of course. What sort of time? Is morning good for you?"
"Morning is great. I'm...not around...later"
"How about 10:30? We have space then?"
"Great. 10:30 would be that with a...junior stylist?" [always book with a junior stylist because they're cheapest I've been taught]
"No, that would be with of our top stylists. The appointment costs £99."
Screaming in my head because I know I need to back out somehow!
"Um...are there any others...with junior stylist?"
"I'll have to have a look, can you hold?"
"Um...yeah, no worries"
"We do have an appointment at 1:45 with our junior stylist BlahBlah."
"Um...I'm not around this afternoon...hang on, can I just think"
"I'll just put you on hold..........*2 minutes later*.....thought about it?"
"Actually, you know, maybe I will take that 10:30 appointment........."
"Great. We'll see you then"

I hang up the phone and........F***! What do I do? I mean, I have money in my bank account. I'm earning but do I really want to spend that amount on a haircut? Oh well, nothing I can do now. It's done. Mum wakes from her slumber and I tell her I've got a haircut booked. It's £99 but it's fine.

Price List.......Cheaper to just chop my own hair off
"You're crazy! There's no need for you to be spending that amount on a haircut! There are so many cheaper options and it's not urgent"

My brain is whirring. I'm already crying...crying! Because I'd made a plan in my head. I'd awkwarded my way through the phone call and now mum was saying I should cancel. What do I do!?

I ask mum to cancel for me. She's going to the same salon later anyway for an eyelash tint so she'll tell them it's all a mistake. Meanwhile, I'll find somewhere else. Somewhere cheaper. 1 hour later and I've booked and cancelled another appointment. Not because of the price this time but because I said yes to the time I was given despite the fact it would make catching my train near on impossible to get to my sister's and the afternoon pick up for my nieces and nephew at 3:30. I came up with an excuse and awkwardly cancelled. An hour later and I've managed to call up the first salon again, spoken to the lovely, understanding receptionist and booked a new appointment with a junior stylist for two days time. A day when I have no work, no time restraints and I'm not using up a months pay on a couple of inches of hair.

All that happened in one morning. Why? Because of you. Because I'm socially awkward. I can't say yes or no when I need to. Because before I even picked up the phone the first time, I had to google the phrase I needed to describe what I wanted just to prevent me getting it wrong.

Cut and blow-dry.
Cut and blow-dry.
Cut and blow-dry.

It was ok though...I mean at least the haircut wasn't too awkward, right?
You'd think it was simple right? Not for me. For me, the world is full of obstacles. It's a course covered in hurdles I need to leave a huge run up to so I can prepare, time to research phrases. vocabulary, locations. Tunnels where I can't see the end so I have to shine some light on the situation before I can enter it. Ask my parents questions. How do I do this? What do I need to say? What does this mean?

We live in a world where we learn everything we need to about the parts of the eye, the capital cities of hundreds of countries, trigonometry and how to spell Photosynthesis but where providing us with the directions and instructions for life are ignored. Where I reached the age of 18 terrified of booking a doctors appointment because I didn't know what to say. Not knowing half the terms my mum gave me to speak to the insurers before I started CBT and where, when I go to the bank, I feel like I need to take a dictionary.

For some, this may all seem like a load of rubbish. The ramblings of an incompetent but 4 months ago I was told by a psychologist that I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. A name for the butterflies I've suffered from my entire life. It's in my nature that I'm quite shy as it is. It's in my genes that I'm anxious. Throw me out into the big wide world with nothing but some letters next to some subjects on a sheet of paper that tell the world I'm supposedly smart, and I'm flailing. Drowning in an ocean of scenarios that the classroom didn't prepare me for.

So, social anxiety, and all your anxiety buddies besides, I'd appreciate if you backed off. If you could pack your bags, open the door, walk outside and never look back.

I need to navigate this world without you and at the moment, you're blocking my path.

Move aside,

Pasta-Of-No-Specific-Shape-Or-Size Bolognese

So I'm a bit of a carnivore...if you haven't noticed. Bar a few exceptions, most of the recipes on here are of the meat variety. Pasta is no exception. Ignoring my life long obsession with pesto, green, red, made...all pesto, I basically don't eat pasta unless it's served with that weird?

Actually...hang on...that's not entirely true. My dad makes a delicious courgette pasta recipe that I love and Carluccios do a wonderful pasta funghi dish........neither of which include meat....

But for the sake of creativity, writing, blogging, all that shizzle, I do like my meats. So today I thought I'd give you my recipe for bolognese. I won't call it Spag Bol because I don't tend to use Spaghetti but call it what you will, the sauce is the same. Sauceyyy.

Pasta-Of-No-Specific-Shape-Or-Size Bolognese

1 Onion
2 Garlic Cloves
3 medium carrots, 2 large carrots, 1 ginormous carrot...carrots
1 large leek (see carrots for alternative quantities)
A medium handful of mushrooms (find someone with medium hands or make a guess)
Olive Oil
Salt, Pepper and Mixed Herbs
500g of Beef Mince
A can (or 2) of chopped tomatoes
1 Oxo Cube 

Set the oven to approximately 120 degrees C with a rack around half way up (or down depending on your philosophy in life)
1. So, first, you want to chop up your veggies, preferably into reasonably small cubes (or similar shape). I always find carrots and leeks easiest if you peel them, wash them then cut them in half once lengthways and once accross the middle then chop from there. As leeks are layered (like onions...and ogres) you'll probably end up with reasonably thin pieces but that's fine. It's all for the flavour!
2. With the onions and garlic chopped small, heat some oil up in a deep casserole type dish or saucepan, adding the onion first followed a minute or so later by the garlic on a medium/low heat. Keep watch on these cheeky cubes of flavour because they burn easily - I recommend a wooden spoon to constantly keep the pieces moving and get them all covered in the olive oil without burning.
3. Once these have had a bit of time to soften (but not brown) chuck in the carrots and leeks (as these will take longer) and then the mushrooms and mix all these lovely delicious veggies together. You can always add more oil too if needed.

4. Now the colourful healthier bits have started to soften (don't worry about them cooking fully, there's plenty of time for that) you can add the mince. Tip it all in there and break it up with the back of a spoon so that you don't have one big clump and as much of the meat as possible is able to be reached by the heat and begin browning. The aim is to get the meat from that wonderful pink/red colour it starts as to a grey/brown shade...tasty eh? Once you've hit that point, you can now chuck in some seasoning: salt, pepper, a generous handful of mixed herbs, all that melarky and toss it all around. 
5. So now, you should have a lovely smelling dish of vegetabley, meaty mix that probably doesn't look very saucy. Do not fear, my child! It is time to add the chopped tomatoes and all the nommy juices that come with it. Tip it all in there and give it a stir. You can now afford to turn up the heat a tad and allow the mix to start simmering. 

6. As it is doing so, boil the kettle, unwrap one of those crumbly Oxo cubes and create some stock in a jug or mug. When the stock cube has dissolved (or nearly dissolved) you can tip this extra liquid into the pan - use your judgement on this one though, if the sauce already seems quite liquidy, don't feel the need to bung the whole darn lot of stock in there. Chill. Put it to the side and drink it later with a biscuit...
7. Place the lid on your pot, bring the sauce to a simmer and, when gently bubbling, place the pot in the pre-heated oven with the lid on for approximately 1 hour...depending on how hungry/impatient you are. 
8. At the 15 minutes to go mark, you can now put on a pan of water to boil, add some pasta (of any shape and size) and wait. Once cooked, you can remove the pot from the oven, dish a bowl or two of pasta up, add a spoonful of meaty, tomatoey goodness on top, grate some parmesan and...........

Buon Appetito!